This spring, HHS Chief Technology Officer Todd Park announced the debut of a newly revamped website allowing users to track data on HHS' grant programs. The website -- called Tracking Accountability in Government Grants System, or TAGGS -- first started in 1995 and was long overdue for a refresh.
"A supercool new version of TAGGS has just launched with a lot of new features to celebrate!" Park wrote in an April blog post. He continued, "Check out the many new financial reporting features -- perhaps for your region or grantee institution of interest. You can set up searches on key topic areas and create specialized reports tracking grants data over time."
TAGGS does not manage any HHS grant awards, but rather serves as a central warehouse for all of the department's grant information. HHS' operating divisions -- such as CDC or the Health Resources and Services Administration -- feed data into TAGGS on a weekly basis about the grants they award. Prior to fiscal year 2009, HHS operating divisions reported grant data on a monthly basis.
Yolanda Jones, director of HHS' Office of Grants Systems Modernization, said TAGGS is "a tool that helps us work with the public and show them that HHS is serious about the fact that we want our data to be accessible. We want it to be transparent, and we want our data to be quality."
Impetus for TAGGS Refresh
Amy Haseltine -- HHS' associate deputy assistance secretary for grants -- said the original TAGGS site launched in response to two main factors: the need to provide HHS with a centralized place to collect grant data and the desire to provide the public with access to such information.
Haseltine said the TAGGS site has offered openness and transparency on HHS grants for more than 15 years. However, a few recent events prompted officials to revamp the site.
First, the passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009 funneled large sums of money to federal agencies to distribute through grants. The funding came with the requirement that data on all ARRA grants be made available to the public.
Haseltine said, "There was a heightened degree of awareness and expectation among the public that we provide information in a meaningful, transparent, forthright manner."
Second, the White House in late 2009 issued the Open Government Directive calling for federal agencies to take immediate, specific steps to promote transparency by opening up access to certain data on how they operate. As part of its efforts to carry out this initiative, the Obama administration launched new, consumer-focused websites such as Recovery.gov, which monitors spending from the stimulus package, and USASpending.gov, which tracks all government spending.
Finally, Haseltine said, the passage of the federal health reform law in 2010 increased the government's sense of responsibility to provide easily accessible data on HHS grant awards. She said that because the Affordable Care Act "touched so many lives across the country and even across the world, we needed to ensure that we could provide information in the most transparent, meaningful and accessible way possible."
Haseltine explained that the stimulus package generated a lot of interest in government spending, and that HHS took lessons from that experience. She said that once the health reform law passed and started pumping out large volumes of grant funding, HHS knew that "there would be a natural and almost instinctual response on behalf of the public, Congress and other stakeholders to say, 'What the heck are you doing with all the money?'"
Rehana Mwalimu -- Open Government project lead at OGSM -- said, "We knew that [TAGGS] really needed to target Affordable Care Act spending exclusively to help us better track and report on that funding."
TAGGS Site Makeover
Two of the major new features of the overhauled TAGGS site are drop-down menus allowing users to search specifically for ARRA and ACA grants. The post-makeover TAGGS site also looks entirely different from its earlier version. The dry style, small print and wide-open white spaces of the previous site have been replaced with bold text boxes, colorful charts and scroll-over maps.
"The difference from a look-and-feel standpoint from the previous site -- which we all thought was great -- to where we are now, it's kind of like a solid Honda and a Cadillac," Haseltine said. "Both are terrific cars, both absolutely get you where you want to go, but one is just a much nicer, smoother ride."
Users of the TAGGS site can track HHS grant information in a variety of ways, Haseltine said. "There are canned reports that are available, you can search by ARRA, you can search by Affordable Care Act, and even the scroll-over capacity on the map itself allows you to see almost instantaneously the larger, aggregate amount of grant funding from HHS to each of our states. And, you can click on that and drill down to more detailed levels of information."
So who exactly is using the TAGGS website? HHS staff, local government agencies, grant recipients, consumers? "All of the above," Haseltine said. According to HHS' TAGGS team, the website receives more than 11,000 hits and 190 unique visitors per day. In May, just before the height of the grant season, the website received more than 350,000 hits and more than 59,000 unique visitors. If you extrapolate those statistics, Haseltine said, "you're looking at more than 3.6 million hits a year." She added, "It's a pretty busy place."
Although the statistics suggest that many stakeholders are visiting the TAGGS site, Jones said the average usage has not increased dramatically since the site refresh. She noted that HHS is undertaking efforts to increase awareness of the new site. Later this year, the agency hopes to organize a public forum that could feature a demo of the revamped TAGGS platform and provide an opportunity for stakeholders to provide feedback.
Geetha Srinivasarao -- IT specialist on the TAGGS project -- said many visitors already are using the online feedback form to comment on the new grant-tracking website.
Mwalimu said, "We're continuously looking for ways to improve the site and provide the public with increased access to data that's in machine-readable formats and other formats." So far, HHS has rolled out minor modifications to the new TAGGS site to make it more accessible through additional Web browsers.
All in all, the new TAGGS site still serves the same basic purpose of the original website -- providing transparency through open access to HHS grant data.
Haseltine said that the revamped TAGGS site still is "fulfilling the same mission, but hopefully doing so a little bigger, faster, better -- and certainly prettier."