Watch Your Step: Navigating the Political Pitfalls of Spending Your ARPA Funding
With great funding comes great responsibility. It can also come with a surge of a mainstay of American democracy: political jockeying.
Government agencies around the United States have experienced exactly that after an avalanche of ARPA funding was disbursed in 2021 and 2022. Elected officials, appointed board members, and government employees are—understandably—being bombarded with requests for aid and information in the wake of a pandemic that rocked the world.
In addressing this great need, how government executives go about assessing and funding priorities is crucially important. Leadership and guidance from local and state agencies will help elected and appointed officials advocate appropriately for their constituents and assure them that their needs are being heard. Their willingness to act as a partner in the strategic planning and execution process will make things run more smoothly and efficiently, and establish transparency and accountability from the beginning.
The question is: how do you get there?
Your Roadmap for Addressing Political Interests
1. Obtain advance buy-in from officials to your strategic planning process.
Building consensus on processes, roles, and responsibilities in advance of distributing funds protects the internal team when political pressure mounts to address individual needs. It also protects elected officials or appointed board members by arming them with the tools and information to advise their constituents confidently. In short, it gives them cover to stay in their lane: gathering and analyzing constituent feedback, identifying underlying needs, and approving program purposes that address those needs.
2. Provide Tools and Information to Make Intelligence-Gathering Easier
In addition to a clear understanding of the strategic planning process, elected
officials and governing bodies should be provided with tools and supports that maximize their ability to do their part, such as:
A step-by-step process they can share with constituents regarding how and where to submit feedback in the program development stage. This might be a web form, survey, town hall meeting, email address, or some combination.
Tools for data collection and analysis to capture and distill insights from constituent feedback. This may instead be managed centrally by the government office responsible for the funds, if appropriate.
A formal process by which to share these insights with the community. This should include the official’s advocacy plan, i.e. their suggested order of priority of major areas of concern, how they will present constituent needs to the managing agency, and what the desired outcomes are.
3. Thoroughly Brief Officials On Tactical Plans, Procedures, and Processes
The extent to which elected officials are involved in the initial development of tactics that put the strategic plan into action is a judgement call that each agency will need to make. At a minimum, once the tactical plan has been written, elected officials should review it, provide feedback, and ultimately approve program purposes designed to respond to their constituents’ needs.
Once the tactical plans are approved, elected officials should be provided with tools and information to communicate important details to the public, including how to take advantage of specific programs and—most critically—application dates and criteria for grant, loan, and other programs. This helps to reduce the number of applications denied based on technical criteria—for example, reimbursement of rent for a commercial space being denied because a business did not have a lease in place. Keeping elected officials informed of any program challenges or patterns of misunderstanding among applicants empowers them to counsel constituents on how best to prepare for each funding wave.
4. Make Use of Equitable Distribution Formulas
Normally, equitable distribution formulas are used by the courts in divorce cases to divide property and assets fairly between spouses. In the case of federal funds disbursement, they are invaluable for weighing the needs and existing resources of potential grantees, regardless of how different they are from one another. Keep in mind that equitable is not the same thing as equal. A 50/50 split isn’t always the fairest compromise; contextual factors make a significant difference.
Image: Equality (left) vs. Equity (right), created by Craig Froehle
Some important questions to ask when considering equity in funding are:
How large or small is the grantee organization? What is its reach?
How important, urgent, or both are the services the grantee provides?
What does the organization’s capacity and performance look like? For example, does it have the proper finance systems in place? Human Resource and Recruitment functions? Internal training? Accountability and project management systems?
How might additional funding impact capacity and performance?
What does the grantee’s current operating budget look like?
Does the grantee benefit from other sources of funding, public or private? Do they have endowment reserves to rely on in an emergency?
Does the grantee serve marginalized or at-risk populations, such as seniors, immigrants, children, people with disabilities, or racial and ethnic minorities?
How has the grantee performed on recent risk assessments?
Taking steps to ensure funds are allocated equitably increases confidence and buy-in from both elected officials and other stakeholders.
For more information on advancing equity and inclusion in your municipality, we recommend reviewing some of the excellent resources published by the City for All Women Initiative: https://www.cawi-ivtf.org/portfolio
5. Brief Officials on Allowable and Unallowable Costs
To prioritize constituent feedback and assist in the development of equitable distribution formulas, elected officials need to know what money may and may not be spent on. The agency should provide a reference guide that allows officials to easily determine whether a constituent’s request can be addressed using ARPA funds (or those from other relevant programs).
Given the frequent guidance changes from the federal and state governments, it is vitally important that the government agency remain abreast of the most current information on allowable costs. Any changes or updates should be communicated to elected officials and the public swiftly, efficiently, and via multiple avenues of outreach.
In cases where states have left the allowability of certain costs to the discretion of local governments, elected officials should be involved in developing the associated framework. In addition to increasing stakeholder buy-in, this opens avenues for discussion on important political considerations and how to accommodate them in a way that is objective and above board.
6. Implement firm rules of ethics, conflict of interest procedures, and appeals processes. Train officials (and agency staff) in these areas annually, at minimum.
One of the managing agency’s greatest responsibilities is ensuring that the strategic plan includes ironclad rules of ethics, conflict of interest procedures, and appeals processes. The other is confirming that elected officials, appointed board members, and other stakeholders fully understand them, both to protect the integrity of the project and themselves.
In addition to providing copies of any policies in writing—and posting them publicly so that officials may refer constituents to them when needed—the agency should provide regular training sessions to familiarize all stakeholders with the associated rules, regulations, and operational functions of each policy.
7. Explain the audit process and penalties--including criminal penalties--for fraud, waste, abuse, ethics violations, and funds mismanagement.
Simply put, how an agency or grantee manages federal funding makes the difference between serving the public well and trading in your best suit for an orange jumpsuit. Everyone involved in the planning and execution of projects funded with ARPA dollars should have a clear, detailed understanding of their obligations and restrictions under the law, how they and their programs will be assessed for compliance, and the potential consequences of failing an audit.
Be sure to emphasize that while this may not be relevant in the immediate, that will change as time goes on (and has already, in some cases). ARPA audits and monitoring are required by Federal regulation, and it’s important to be prepared. Audit and monitoring processes and safeguards are key pieces of evidence in any program review and, when designed and implemented well, demonstrate accountability and protect personnel, elected officials, and the public.
8. Develop and share consistent rubrics for evaluating funding eligibility and award amounts.
As with equitable distribution formulas, having an objective rubric for evaluating funding applicants is a matter of fair play. Sharing that rubric with elected officials equips them to emphasize the criteria most relevant to their constituents, including potential areas of difficulty, and offer guidance on how to meet them. It also establishes transparency, which will increase public trust in both the fairness of the application process and in the leadership of their officials and the managing agency.
9. Assign the process of evaluating and awarding grants to an independent group.
Initially, one might assume it makes more sense for the body that developed a set of criteria to determine whether they’re being met—after all, they would know best. In practice, doing so poses significant organizational risk: at best, it leaves agencies and leaders open to conflict of interest and fraud accusations, and at worst, creates opportunities for both to occur.
To avoid even the appearance of impropriety and protect the integrity of the award program, an independent group, whether inside the organization or external to it, should be tasked with applying the appropriate criteria to each applicant and facilitating grant awards. Firms like the Vander Weele Group specialize in providing unbiased reviews and audit-proof management and monitoring processes that protect state agencies, local governments, LEAs, and their constituents.
Involving a third party is also an excellent way to test the quality and reliability of your scoring rubric. A well-thought-out process and list of criteria should enable anyone—not just those on the inside—to evaluate data and reach similar conclusions.
10. Where possible, leave a percentage of funds for contingency--not to accommodate individual requests, but to add programs.
The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. That is particularly true when it comes to funding programs with federal money. It isn’t always possible to anticipate future needs or obstacles. Government executives and elected officials alike can offer predictions on program outcomes based on past experience or statistical models, but until it’s actually executed, any strategic plan will have a question mark hovering over it.
As such, when the law permits it, it may be best to leave yourself some margin for error. Allocating a percentage of your resources to a contingency fund gives you the flexibility to make necessary changes, respond to unexpected events, and strengthen existing programs to meet public need while still operating in a fiscally responsible manner.
11. Document everything and make those documents easily available.
Finally, the most important step of all—document, document, document!
All the steps listed above should be recorded, if not in the strategic plan itself, then in another reference guide (such as a roadmap) which is comprehensive and publicly available. Significant effort should be put into disseminating where and how to access these documents (we highly recommend building a dedicated website or page to house them). Emails, public postings, town hall meetings, announcements in local and regional publications, and direct mail are just a few of the ways agencies and officials can make the citizens of their state, county, or city aware of what resources are available to them.
Simplifying the process for stakeholders looking to gain a comprehensive understanding of the strategic planning process, tactics, goals, initiatives, and progress goes a long way in building trust across the political landscape, protecting internal teams, and ensuring compliance with applicable laws, regulations, and guidance.