“[The application process was] torturous. There were so many redundant questions, some of the questions were like ‘why does that matter?’ It hangs you up for days and it isn’t clear what the government wants to know.”
U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Development (RD)
Zuni Pueblo Housing Authority (ZHA) Zuni Self-Help Housing project in Zuni, NM.
A Customer Experience Approach to Understanding Tribal Nations Experiences Accessing Federal Grants
Like many in the United States, citizens of Tribal Nations are rebuilding their communities, jobs, and infrastructure after the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2021, Tribal Nations saw historic Federal investments, including direct investments and grants. This funding has come from new laws, including the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA, commonly known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law or BIL). These bills alone total about $53 Billion1, an enormous increase in funds from previous years. While the direct funding investments in the new laws are provided to all Tribal governments, the new grant programs require an application and selection process. Several Tribal members shared the sentiment that “this is a once-in-a-lifetime amount of money.”
While these historic investments provide important recovery and rebuilding opportunities, the significant influx of funds can also present challenges. Some Tribal governments with capacity and expertise are adapting to apply for and, for some, receive grants. Other Tribal governments — such as those with the greatest needs — are struggling to take advantage of all available grant opportunities. An information technology (IT) Manager and grant writer from one Tribe said, “You’ll see it’s the wealthiest Tribes [who are successful with grants] because they can afford the grant writers. The Tribes that have lower capacity don’t have the resources to hire experts.”
The Federal government is aware2 that some Tribal governments experience challenges in accessing Federal grants and seek to eliminate barriers by learning directly from the experiences of those in Tribal governments navigating these processes. Members from the Office of Management and Budget’s (OMB) Customer Experience team and U.S. Digital Service (USDS) recently completed a multi-week “Discovery Sprint” to understand Tribal experiences accessing Federal grants. This approach is a time- and resource-efficient way to capture a broad understanding and surface initial insights. A customer experience research Discovery Sprint is a 4-6 week learning project to understand people’s experiences and needs in aggregate within a defined area, with insights and opportunity ideas as vital outputs. The team’s findings from the project are summarized here.
The Biden-Harris Administration has taken historic steps to advance the interests, self-determination, and well-being of Tribal Nations through robust Nation-to-Nation engagement, financial investments, and new executive actions3 that strengthen the evolving Nation-to-Nation relationship rooted in the Federal trust responsibility.
In December of 2021, President Biden signed Executive Order (E.O.) 140584 “Transforming Federal Customer Experience and Service Delivery to Rebuild Trust in Government.”The E.O.'s purpose declares that “Government must be held accountable for designing and delivering services with a focus on the actual experience of the people whom it is meant to serve.” Section 4 instructs OMB, including USDS, to collaborate with Federal agencies to conduct human-centered design (HCD) research and document customer experience challenges related to accessing grant programs to which Tribal governments are entitled and propose ways to streamline processes and reduce administrative burdens.
The Discovery Sprint
Between January and March of 2022, OMB’s Federal Customer Experience team and USDS, with support from the Lab at the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, conducted a Discovery Sprint project to understand Tribal Nations’ experiences and challenges in accessing Federal grants. Throughout the project, the research team worked closely with the Senior Advisor on Tribal Affairs of the White House Domestic Policy Council and an Interagency Policy Council (IPC) on support for Tribes for ARPA and IIJA. The IPC included representatives from the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Interior, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, Treasury, and the Environmental Protection Agency.
The team utilized an HCD research methodology that prioritizes learning directly from the people the work is intended to benefit. This method includes desk research, semi-structured interviews, synthesis, and sharing findings with stakeholders to illuminate challenges. The team used existing data and initial conversations with Federal Tribal Liaisons and other subject matter experts to narrow and define the research frame. The team spoke with 16 Tribal stakeholders, including financial offices, IT managers, and grant writers from a mix of Tribe geography, size, structure, and capacity. The team also spoke with 28 Federal stakeholders and subject matter experts from several agencies, some of whom are also members of Tribes.
The team began with the following problem-framing statement, informed by desk research and early conversations with Federal government subject matter experts: Accessing and managing grants for Tribes can be confusing, siloed, complicated, and can overwhelm applicant and Federal capacities. The influx of funding from CARES, ARP, and IIJA exacerbates this issue during a moment of historic opportunity.
As a use case to explore this challenge further, the team focused on the experience of completing broadband grant applications. Interviews with Tribal members and subject matter experts yielded numerous compelling stories, data, quotes, and perspectives. Desk research, including sources such as the U.S. Government Accountability Office5 and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights6 provided additional detail and evidence. These insights are the substance and heart of the team’s customer experience findings. The findings are framed broadly around administrative burden and capacity. Administrative burden is the effort and time to handle hurdles like confusing paperwork and complex regulations that introduce delay and frustration into experiences with government agencies. As examples of administrative burdens, the team heard from Tribes that applications are long, have redundancies, and require a complex submission process. Capacity refers to the total amount of people, money, and resources (example: geospatial software) that Tribes can bring to bear on this process. The lowest capacity Tribes, for example, do not typically hire professional grant writers to complete and submit grant applications.
The team organized its findings around three themes that cross-cut the grant access experience. These are:
- some requirements of Federal grants prevent some Tribes from accessing and maximizing critical funding;
- administrative burden experienced throughout the grant lifecycle overwhelms some Tribal capacities; and
- some Tribes perceive that the Tribal funding approach falls short of the general Federal trust responsibility.
Insights from the Field
Member of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, Grant Writer, Broadband Advocate
One Tribal member the team spoke with had applied for and won broadband funding a few years ago. Despite this past success, she still describes working on the latest funding process as “tortuous.” She understands how time-intensive and costly the grant process can be.
Member of the Ute Mountain Tribe, Director of Planning and Development
Another Tribal member the team spoke with had been awarded part of the funding the Tribe needed to implement a broadband project and is applying for additional grants to bring the work to the finish line. Her vision of a better grant process is one where each agency has a direct relationship with Tribes and understands their unique contexts.
A customer experience Discovery Sprint is one research method to capture high-level priority customer pain points efficiently and to surface initial opportunity areas. This approach allows for identifying insights rooted in direct experience from a limited but thoughtful representation of customers.
While the team conducted interviews directly with individuals from some Tribes, the findings in the report are indicative and not representative of all Tribes, regions, and experiences. Further, while the team spoke to a diverse group of Tribal members, they did not talk with Tribes in every region, including Alaska or Hawaii, where numerous Alaska Native Villages and Native Hawaiian organizations (NHOs) are based. Within the timeframe of the sprint, the team was also unable to speak with some of the smallest Tribes with the lowest levels of capacity. In the end, the findings are an aggregate to draw broad insights into the customer experience.
By direction of E.O. 14058, the team scoped the Discovery Sprint to research and document customer experience challenges related to accessing grant programs, with the purpose of sharing insights with leaders from multiple agencies – building a common understanding of how we might streamline processes and reduce administrative burdens on Tribal government customers. Further, the team learned that collecting these insights from the center of government, validating and articulating common needs, is a helpful exercise to continue to build trust with Tribes.
The scope of the Discovery Sprint did not include community-based participatory research, quantitative research, data analysis, service design, implementation strategy, management, or development.
Considerations for Carrying This Work Forward
Many of the findings from the Discovery Sprint touch on, validate, and add insight to existing work. Throughout the project, the research team learned about active initiatives to improve access to Federal grants, including for Tribal Nations. This work includes ongoing work to improve technology tools, such as with HHS and grants.gov, and better interagency coordination on Tribal consultations, such as through the IPC on support for Tribes for ARP and IIJA. Other related work includes the equitable implementation of the ARP and IIJA more generally, the Justice40 Initiative8, implementation of the Grant Reporting Efficiency and Agreements Transparency (GREAT) Act9.
Most recently, on September 12, 2022, OMB announced its first ever Tribal Advisor to the OMB Director. Following consultation with Tribal leaders, OMB recognized the need for and established the role of Tribal Advisor at OMB. This historic position will be instrumental in coordinating Tribal priorities across OMB’s budgetary, management, and regulatory functions, while working with other key leaders at the White House and across the entire Administration.
Ongoing consultation and engagement with Tribes, through activities like this Discovery Sprint, can generate new insights and learnings. As announced in November 2022 at the Tribal Nations Summit, the President has signed a new Presidential Memorandum establishing uniform standards to be implemented across all Federal agencies regarding how Tribal consultations are conducted. Further, nine agencies will implement new or updated Tribal consultation policies. USDA and HUD will establish their first-ever Tribal Advisory Committees to ensure that Tribal leaders have direct and consistent contact with Federal agency decisionmakers and to institutionalize Tribal voices within policymaking. Along with new positions and Advisory Committees at agencies across government, the government can better build and maintain meaningful feedback loops to better understand and address unmet needs while continuing to build trust with Tribes.
Tribal Nations are sovereign nations with unique relationships with the Federal government. They are also a specific customer group identified in E.O. 14058. Therefore, the Federal government must increase its collective understanding of the burdens and barriers to access for Tribal Nations. It is important to implement and, where necessary, to institute systems and practices for meaningful, direct feedback between Tribes and the Federal government to improve programs, processes, and services. In doing so, the Federal government can better meet its overall trust responsibility10, exemplify a true Nation-to-Nation relationship, and support Tribal sovereignty.
1 Source: Whitehouse Fact Sheet: Building A New Era of Nation-to-Nation Engagement November 15, 2021
2 Source: Department of the Interior Equity Action Plan, Opportunity Area 3 – Improve Access to and Awareness of Tribal Discretionary Grant Funding
3 Source: Tribal Consultation and Strengthening Nation-to- Nation Relationships, Memorandum of January 26, 2021
4 Source: Executive Order on Transforming Federal Customer Experience and Service Delivery to Rebuild Trust in Government
5 Source: Additional Coordination and Performance Measurement Needed for High-Speed Internet Access Programs on Tribal Lands, U.S. Government Accountability Office
6 Source: Broken Promises: Continuing Federal Funding Shortfall for Native Americans, U.S. Commission on Civil Rights
7 Source: A Guidebook to The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law For State, Local, Tribal, and Territorial Governments, And Other Partners
8 Source: The Path to Achieving Justice40, July 2021
9 Source: Grant Reporting Efficiency and Agreements Transparency Act of 2019
10 Source: Why Tribes Exist Today in the United States