Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Managing More than 300 Grants: CIRM's Thin Ice Question

A key panel of directors of the California stem cell agency on Tuesday will wrestle with ongoing issues involving its critical grants management system and consider changes in its policies concerning the many outside contractors CIRM is forced to rely on.

The agency has already posted some background information for the Governance Subcommittee meeting including a list of current contracts and the proposed changes in contracting. However, still missing is a report on the grants management system, which stirred strong concern from directors at their June meeting.

One director, Michael Friedman, CEO of the City of Hope, warned that CIRM was skating on “thin ice” with its plans to create its own software to monitor and track grants. Friedman said,
“Everybody has seen horrible examples of custom-designed systems that go bad.”
He continued,
“I have to express in the strongest possible terms my discomfort” with the CIRM staff decision to build a custom system.
Friedman's probing led CIRM directors to seek the report on the grants system for next week's meeting. CIRM plans to use the system for the entire grant process from application to termination. CIRM has awarded more than 300 grants involving more than $1 billion. It plans to hand out another $2 billion over the next seven years or so.

The grants management effort has a long history, dating back to 2007 when directors were told it would cost only $757,000. By our count, the agency has spent $1.2 million so far, not including staff time, with much more coming this year. CIRM has not publicly provided its own total nor has it forecast how much more will needed to be spent until the system is fully developed. Also missing are projected annual maintenance and service costs following that point.

For the current fiscal year, the CIRM budget forecasts that spending on information technology will jump by 53 percent, from $817,000 to $1.2 million, an increase of about $433,000. Most of that goes for the grant system.

Also on tap Tuesday are unspecified changes in the bylaws for the CIRM governing board.

Tuesday's meeting will have teleconference locations in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Sacramento, La Jolla, Irvine and Palo Alto. If you would like to attend any of those sessions, you should check the agenda for specific addresses. In some cases, you will need to call CIRM because it has not provided enough information on the agenda to let the public know exactly where the meetings will be held.

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