When Your Office’s Cost Allocation Processes Resemble the Punchline of that Familiar Joke, it’s Time to Take a Look at Your Decision Methods
We recently had a situation in our office where a question was raised about the method of allocating an allowable supply cost to a sponsored project. The supply cost was $30. The “answer” generated more than one week’s worth of discussion involving the time of eight employees in three different offices. In other words, more than $30 worth of F&A was spent on deciding whether or not it could or should be charged as a direct cost on the award. (It was direct charged, and it should have been, it was the right thing to do.)
You’ve Hammered The Nail Down. How Many More Times Do You Need To Hit It?
This is not a discussion about whether or not we want to be compliant – this is a discussion about the BEST way to be compliant. The reality is, that there is often MORE than one way to allocate costs in a compliant manner, and the fact of the matter is that we can allocate costs as effectively as possible, following all the rules and guidelines provided by the funding agency and OMB circulars – and an auditor can still request to remove the charge for a particular reason on an audit. (They may, or may not be successful.) At the end of the day, we need to realize that we are going to make the best decisions possible, according to policies, decide who is responsible for decision making, and move on. So how do we do this, and how can we avoid the black and white thinking that so often comes along with cost allocation processes – and makes the process so PAINFUL and time consuming?
A Starting Place for Understanding Cost Allocation: Three Questions
1. Who decides if the charge goes on the award, and who reviews/approves this decision?
It’s been my experience that the best cost allocation decisions are made at the department level – they are usually initiated by the investigator, and followed up on by a research administrator, who determines how best to allocate the cost to the award – and confirms this with the investigator. The RA might consult with a central office, but a central office role is usually to review and approve the charge once it is placed on the award, and that’s the appropriate role for the central office. It’s good to make sure we’re charging the award appropriately before we’ve touched it – but the local department knows more about the research and how the award is being conducted. The investigator also knows their program officer’s expectations, and grants management officer’s guidelines about how the award should be spent.
2. What information helps guide the decision making process?
The OMB circulars, the award documentation, and the agency guidance regarding allowable costs, as well as institutional policies and procedures regarding cost allocation. Whew! That’s a lot of information that is sometimes contradictory – so where do you start? The most specific guidance for the award pertains first.
3. What documentation supports the decision, and how is this documentation generated and maintained?
There is nothing WORSE than cost allocation processes that are not consistently followed – think A21. Following processes that document purchasing, and the allocation of costs on awards and document these costs consistently so that administrators can follow your thought processes are vital (everything from always using formulas in Excel spreadsheets to entering in justifications to every computer system that you use to execute financial transactions).
Fundamental Knowledge for Successful Cost Allocation
- The research administrator needs to know the units for accepting costs (this sounds trivial and simple, but it really is quite important). Are costs to be allocated by project, lab, employee, etc?
- Roles need to be maintained – it is surprising how often central office staff regularly allocate costs to account codes that are inappropriate or feel that they know best how to allocate costs, when they know little about the research itself or the cost item being allocated.
- The consistency principle for A21 should be (in my opinion) maintained by research unit – similar types of research. Again, this is something that departments know better than central offices – allocation of expenses for wet labs is going to be different than allocation of expenses for dry labs, or clinical research labs. Explaining this to a central office accountant is important to ensure the correct allocation method for the sponsored research account.
- Allowability and reasonableness are usually easier terms to work through, based on the award information.
If you have a particularly unusual situation, work with your investigator to talk with your central office, and his or her grants management specialist about the question to receive approval. Document the decision if it is favorable. It’s still no guarantee – but it’s a good indication that it’s an allowable cost. Document all of the justification material and correspondence for future reference.
The Best Defense Is A Good Offense
As always, the investigator is always in the best position to support his or her cost allocations when the budget and budget justification are well developed in the proposal stage, and his or her progress reports, financial reports, and updates are well tracked and presented. Our cost allocation decisions should make sense, and be defensible when we are asked about them by our internal and external auditors. And it shouldn’t take a village to allocate the cost of a $30 item to a sponsored project – because there’s more work to be done!