Grant Progress Assessments for Forensic Laboratory Enhancement Awards

The Grant Progress Assessment (GPA) program was created to ensure that grantees used federal grant funds to achieve the goals and objectives set forth by Congress. It became an important tool for NIJ program managers for another reason — the assessments helped them educate grantees on grant requirements and special conditions, which in turn helped grantees better administer their grants. In the absence of an active GPA program, grantees can use this page as a reference for lessons learned from the program, and to learn about the program's accomplishments, purpose and history.

On this page find:

Purpose of the Grant Progress Assessment Program

NIJ provides funds to state and local crime laboratories to help increase and improve their capacity to conduct accurate and timely forensic testing. In the last decade, NIJ has awarded more than $1 billion in forensic laboratory grants and cooperative agreements to states and local governments with existing crime laboratories.
Read the annual reports to Congress on laboratory improvement.

Crime laboratories must follow rigorous federal regulations about how to spend federal funds, and NIJ must report back to Congress on how the funds are being used. To ensure that funds are spent appropriately and that recipients are meeting the goals established for the funds, NIJ carefully monitors grantee activity. Typical monitoring activities include site visits and detailed review of reports and other documentation.

Between mid-2005 and 2011, NIJ’s Grant Progress Assessment (GPA) program helped NIJ fulfill its obligation to monitor grantees. The program was funded by NIJ and implemented by the National Forensic Science and Technology Center. Program staff conducted audits at no cost to the laboratories.

History of the Program

NIJ created the GPA program in January 2005 to ensure that grant recipients were using federal funds appropriately. The program gave grant recipients an external and objective assessment of the work associated with the grant.

The program’s purpose was twofold:

  • To assist NIJ’s administrative oversight of forensic science awards
  • To educate grantees on proper grant administration

Initially, the GPA program focused on grants awarded under the Forensic DNA Backlog Reduction Program, the Capacity Enhancement Program, and the Convicted Offender and Arrestee DNA Backlog Reduction Program.

The initial positive feedback from the assessments prompted NIJ to expand the program to include grantees that received funding under the Solving Cold Cases With DNA Grant Program (later in 2005) and the Paul Coverdell Forensic Sciences Improvement Grant Program (September 2006).

In September 2011, NIJ ended the program. This decision was prompted partially by budget constraints but also because — in large part thanks to the program — forensic laboratory grantees had demonstrated a greatly improved ability to effectively manage their awards.

How the Program Worked

The objectives of the GPA program:

  • Strengthen NIJ’s program management and oversight
  • Assist NIJ in performing required grant funding due diligence
  • Educate grantees on grant program requirements and special conditions
  • Identify challenges faced by grantees in achieving grant program objectives
  • Identify successful grantee achievements or grant programs
  • Assess the impact of grant funds
  • Ensure that federal grant funds were being used to achieve the goals and objectives set forth by Congress

On a set two-year cycle, a trained assessor or team of assessors — many of them DNA laboratory managers themselves — visited each crime laboratory that had an open NIJ forensic science grant.

Assessors reviewed grant status, assessed whether the grantee was spending federal funds in accordance with federal guidelines, and helped grantees understand the rules and regulations associated with their grants. The assessors’ checklist helped them examine everything from budgets to performance measurement data to deliverables.

The assessments had a financial component, but they were not financial audits. Instead, they provided NIJ with an overview of how the grant was being administered. Items in the assessors’ reports included:

  • Progress in meeting program goals and objectives
  • Documentation status
  • Challenges faced by the grantee
  • Impact of grant funding
  • “Model” programs

Each assessment took from two to five working days, depending on the size of the laboratory. Assessors identified action items the grantee could easily and quickly resolve, and issues for resolution that required formal follow-up by the NIJ grant manager.

Detailed assessment reports listing these findings were sent to the NIJ Grant Program Office. NIJ then determined whether additional financial or programmatic assessments were required.

Accomplishments

From the start of the program in mid-2005 until September 2011, the GPA staff reviewed more than 2,300 awards worth a total of more than $1 billion in forensic laboratory grants and cooperative agreements. The specific numbers and associated grant programs were:
  • 732 DNA Backlog Reduction awards
  • 278 Capacity Enhancement awards
  • 157 Solving Cold Cases With DNA awards
  • 373 Convicted Offender/Arrestee DNA Backlog Reduction awards
  • 823 Paul Coverdell awards

During initial site visits, assessors often found records in disarray, and subsequently they spent a large portion of the visit showing grantees how to set up procedures for documenting, organizing and reporting the data required for grant compliance.

By the second and third visits to laboratories, assessors saw a dramatic improvement in reporting and compliance. Grantees were more organized and had proper systems in place. They knew what questions the assessors were going to ask — for instance, about the validity of their equipment purchases or whether agency asset numbers and serial numbers matched — and were ready with the answers and supporting documentation.

As the program advanced, assessors found fewer problems and greater consistency with federal grant requirements and practices.

Perhaps the biggest lesson grantees learned was how to organize their grant materials, which documents to keep, what activity to document and why, how to record and report performance metrics, and how to properly prepare and submit reports.

Most importantly, grantees learned how to perform frequent self-checks to ensure their procedures and activities continued to comply with NIJ’s rigorous guidelines. The program formalized their review processes and helped them standardize informational materials, such as progress reports and budgets.

Assessors visited and reviewed every grantee that was eligible for their services.

Increased oversight and a formalized process, in turn, ensured that grant recipients could demonstrate appropriate use of grant funds. As a result, the program helped make certain that federal grant funds were being used to achieve the goals and objectives set forth by Congress.

Typical Assessment Findings

Typical errors assessors found in the early years of the program included incorrect grant and financial point-of-contact information, late progress and financial reports, and purchases that were made outside of the proposed timeline.

More serious issues included:

  • Grantees that had moved funds in excess of 10 percent of the total grant amount between approved categories without approval
  • Unallowable expenditures
  • Lack of financial control when it came to commingling of funds
  • Expenditures from a category not in the approved budget or made without prior approval
  • Activity in the progress reports that was not consistent with the proposal

Presented below are actual findings discovered and reported by assessors to NIJ program managers:

  • Grant funds were being used to support activity that did not reflect the goals outlined in the proposal.
  • No progress had been made in producing deliverables 18 months into the award.
  • Grant-funded equipment was not being used.
  • The grantee’s records did not separate cases worked with grant funds and those worked with regular salary funds.
  • The maximum daily rate provided to contractors exceeded the maximum allowable daily rate of $450.
  • The number of “cases reviewed” listed in progress reports counted the same cases for different project periods.
  • The grantee used funds for a conference unrelated to DNA backlog analysis.
  • Funds in the consultants/contract budget category were encumbered prior to the award start date.
  • The grantee issued a sole source purchase order before receiving approval.
  • The grantee used funds from the consultant category, which had a zero budget.
Date Created: January 28, 2013