February 12, 2006

Washington Post slams Grants.gov’s Mac Woes

Looks like the mainstream press has caught wind of Grants.gov’s electronic forms Mac compatibility problems: The Washington Post’s Federal Page features an article about it tomorrow. The article is unfortunately sensationalist and is factually incorrect as a result — Grants.gov is not costing “tens of billions of dollars” and Northrop Grumman’s contract is not for “$22 billion” — but otherwise it reflects the information I and others have previously reported.

The crux of the problem is that the electronic forms product that Grants.gov is using (provided by IBM which bought the developer, PureEdge, and rebranded them “WorkPlace Forms”) are only available on the PC platform. They’ve been promising a Mac version since Grants.gov was stood up.

Interestingly, on Friday Grants.gov released an RFI (Request for Information) to potential bidders on the recompete of Northrop Grumman’s contract. The RFI includes the following:

The government is open to replacement of some or of all major COTS [commercial off-the-shelf] and/or proprietary components of the current system if that provides the best overall value.

I’m pretty sure that the e‑forms/Mac compatibility issue is the major driver behind that statement, and indeed there are several excellent alternatives nowadays. (As I noted back in November, such alternatives weren’t available when the Grants.gov systems development contract was first competed.)

Grants.gov remains an excellent solution for those who have the technical capability to use it. I sincerely hope that the successes it has had are not thrown away by some politico looking to demonstrate “hard management”. That would effectively eliminate the large investments the 26 grant-making agencies have already invested in Grants.gov, throw the Grants Management Line of Business for a complete loop, and put the whole objective of grants streamlining back to around the year 2000.

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5 responses to “Washington Post slams Grants.gov’s Mac Woes

  1. A Mac client would be an improvement, but wouldn’t solve the problem. There are quite a few scientists who use neither Mac nor Windows, but Linux or other Unix systems. Only a truly platform-agnostic system (such as NSF’s fastlane) can be acceptable in the long run.

  2. Claus, thanks for your comment. There won’t be a platform-agnostic version as long as Grants.gov uses e‑forms technology. This is for two reasons. First, I don’t know of a single e‑forms vendor that (a) has implementations of their product for every platform imaginable, (b) could guarantee that all those platforms could utilize the same form structures, and © could provide tools to make it affordable to produce multiple platform-specific flavors of forms for every kind of form used by Grants.gov.
    What’s more, Grants.gov has no interest in hosting grantee’s data. The RFI notes that “The forms should not require the user to be connected to the Internet in order to be completed.” Having off-line access to the forms is very important — not every grant applicant has reliable Internet access.
    So we’re left with Grants.gov trying to please as many people as possible, given the constraints of the mission and the technologies available. The FastLane model was rejected early on in the Grants.gov conceptual design. Maybe it will come back as complimentary service to the e‑forms…but I don’t see it happening soon.

  3. Grants.gov won’t be platform-agnostic

    Yesterday I posted about a Washington Post article that was highly critical of Grants.gov’s inability to provide e‑forms for the Mac platform. One comment on that post really set me thinking. Claus Wilkes noted that while a Mac e‑forms client

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