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GAO Report Criticizes ONDCP Evaluation of Drug-Free Communities Grantees

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The federal Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) set up its own process for determining grant eligibility for the Drug-Free Communities Support Program that resulted in an inability to “show that only eligible coalitions received grants in accordance with the Drug-Free Communities Support Program's statutory framework,” according to a recently released report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO).

The report covered ONDCP and Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) activities during a period in 2005 and 2006 when ONDCP sharply clashed with Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America (CADCA) and a number of Drug-Free Communities grantees who claimed that they had their funding stripped away by the federal drug agency without proper review or justification. ONDCP and SAMHSA share oversight and management responsibilities for the Drug-Free Communities grant program.

In response to such complaints, Sens. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) and Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) joined a chorus of criticism against ONDCP and asked GAO to investigate ONDCP's actions regarding Drug-Free Communities grantmaking.

In the fall of 2005, ONDCP cut funding for 63 Drug-Free Communities grantees and put 88 others on probation, despite the fact that many had scored highly during peer reviews conducted by SAMHSA.

In an October 2005 letter to ONDCP director John Walters, Biden and Grassley said that the review process used by the White House agency “relied more on qualitative and subjective data than it did on the peer-review scores that have guided the decision making process in past years. Further, it seems that the review panel placed extraordinary emphasis on ONDCP's new mandate that no coalition spend more than 20 percent of its budget on direct services.”

Biden and Grassley noted that the Drug-Free Communities Act did not limit coalitions to spending 20 percent of their funds on direct services, and charged, “We feel that this is an arbitrary rule that ONDCP decided to impose this year with the ultimate objective of reducing the number of grantees eligible for continuation funds.”

ONDCP officials at the time defended the review process as “fair” and said it had resulted in a strong set of grantees.

The new GAO report cast the problems as the result of poorly defined roles and responsibilities in the interagency agreement between ONDCP and SAMHSA, as well as a failure to follow federal grantmaking procedures. The report noted that in 2005 ONDCP lacked a process for screening renewal grant applicants to ensure that they met their statutory obligations, instead using its own screening process that consisted of three criteria, including the prohibition against spending more than 20 percent of grant money on direct services.

“Without screening renewal grant applicants for statutory eligibility for fiscal years 2005 and 2006, ONDCP increased its risk that the coalitions it awarded funding were not statutorily eligible to receive the grant funds,” stated the GAO report, entitled Drug-Free Communities Support Program: Stronger Internal Controls and Other Actions Needed to Better Manage the Grant-Making Process.

GAO said that ONDCP clarified its role in administering the Drug-Free Communities program in a 2007 agreement with SAMHSA. The direct-services requirement also has been dropped from eligibility reviews as a result of Congress' passage of the ONDCP Reauthorization Act of 2006, which prohibited ONDCP from imposing any eligibility requirements not included in the Drug-Free Communities Act statute.

“I am very pleased with the progress we have made in the three funding cycles since FY2005,” said ONDCP Director John Walters in a letter to GAO reacting to the report. “We have not only improved our oversight of DFC, but we have also improved our support of our grantees' efforts to push back against youth drug use in their communities.”

However, the watchdog agency noted that ONDCP still does not properly track and document grantee eligibility, and that, “Effective oversight is still lacking because ONDCP has neither developed nor documented its approach to monitoring and overseeing the program as a whole,” the report said.

“While we have already implemented changes that address the concerns in this document, we will continue to look for ways to reduce the government's risk while improving our grantees' effectiveness, and will use your guidance in these efforts,” Walters wrote to GAO.

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