To read the full report, click here.
In fiscal year 2011, the state handed out more than $1.1 billion to nonprofit organizations across the state in the form of 1,636 grants. While taxpayers can access online how much money was spent on these grants, it’s difficult for them to find out what the grants were for and if the grants achieved their goals. At a time when state resources are scarce, it’s especially important for taxpayers and lawmakers alike to know how state dollars are being spent.
The Illinois Transparency and Accountability Portal, or ITAP, allows the public to look up the amount of grants to organizations, but the trail ends there. While it may be interesting that the Illinois Department of Human Services gave a $9,348 grant to the National Red Cross in fiscal year 2012, that information doesn’t reveal whether this was a good way to spend taxpayer dollars. How does that grant compare to an $11,814 grant to the National Audubon Society from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources? Or a $30,000 grant to the American Lung Association from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity? Visitors to that website are left wondering: Could the money have been spent in a different manner to achieve better results? Could a different vendor have provided better value? Currently, ITAP doesn’t provide any insight on these and other important questions to evaluate grants.
One state agency, the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, has a Grant Tracker website that provides additional information about grants from this agency. This site includes addresses for grant recipients as well as project descriptions. While it is a step up from the state’s transparency website, DCEO’s site misses a key element of accountability: results. While stating what a grant is supposed to do is encouraging, what it actually did is essential. For taxpayers to gauge whether their dollars are being used effectively, they need to know more than just the size of the grant. They need to know what was the purpose of the grant, how grant money was spent and what the results were.
Grant recipients already provide the state with some information in their application and contracts, such as budgets, contact information and project proposals. Additionally, many grants over $25,000 require recipients to provide performance metrics, such as quarterly reports.
The state should develop a standardized grantee data collection form to allow the various agencies that give grants to organize the data they collect in a uniform manner. These forms would be posted on the state’s existing transparency and accountability portal. Instead of ending with an amount that gives very little context to what the grant was for, taxpayers will be able to click on a contract number and see documentation of the grant contract. This will give taxpayers insight into the effectiveness of grant recipients.
Why this works
Many state agencies already collect large amounts of information from grant recipients. But it is tedious and time consuming for the public to access this information through Freedom of Information Act requests. Posting the information online in a uniform manner on a single website would allow Illinoisans the ability to hold both grantees and state agencies accountable for how they spend tax dollars. Grant transparency would also improve state government by helping prospective grant applicants compete for state grant funding in order to provide better value to the state.
Transparency is an essential tool to prevent waste, fraud and abuse, and the public has the right to know how tax dollars are being spent. Shining a spotlight on Illinois’ grant spending will strengthen public trust, improve how government operates and save tax dollars.
To read the full report, click here.