Technology Accelerates Security Clearance Process

Susan Hall

Federal agencies have cut through a massive backlog, making gaining a security clearance much faster, a Senate subcommittee was told Thursday. At least 3.9 million federal employees and contractors hold security clearances.

The Office of Personnel Management, the agency responsible for 90 percent of initial background investigations, has cleared up a backlog once estimated at 350,000 cases. A heavy user of security clearances, the Defense Department, which works with OPM to achieve them, was put on the Government Accountability Office's high-risk list in 2005, but the improvements prompted it to be removed from that list last year.

Charlie Sowell, deputy assistant director for special security with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said 22 agencies met their timeliness goals for 2011, while 19 reached their goals at times and five did not meet any of their goals, according to Government Executive.

The Washington Post quotes Merton W. Miller, associate director of investigations for the OPM's Federal Investigative Service, as saying:

We have no backlogs, are meeting timeliness mandates, and have increased automation.

That's good news for programs such as the Defense Department's IT personnel swap with the public sector, in which IT pros can trade jobs for three months to a year. It would seem a major disincentive if gaining a security clearance took longer than the proposed job swap.

As a result of the improvements:

  • Top-secret clearances average 72 days, compared to 308 days in 2005.
  • Reinvestigations, required every five years for employees with top security clearance, average 93 days, not 419 days as in 2005.
  • All other secret or confidential clearance reinvestigations average 31 days now against 115 days in 2005.
  • And the DOD adjudication process, where a background check is evaluated by agency reviewers to determine an applicant's fitness for a particular job, can be done in "a fleet seven days," according to DoD Deputy Chief Management Officer Elizabeth McGrath.

A key change in improving the process has been updating the national security questionnaire, the Standard Form 86, to seek more information from applicants. Increased emphasis on applying electronically has meant fewer incomplete or illegible forms. An electronic process also flags incomplete forms faster.  OPM remains saddled with a paper filing system, though, because not all agencies file electronically, according to Federal News Radio.

Setting up the Performance Accountability Council, a joint effort of the Office of Management and Budget, Office of Personnel Management and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, to standardize investigation and adjudication procedures also was key, McGrath said.

Coordination and reciprocity — in which a clearance is valid across agency lines — remain issues that will required continued oversight, the subcommittee was told.

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