Ready your pen and paper – in the wake of a significant data breach the Office of Personnel Management recently shut down the electronic Questionnaire for Security Processing system. Noting that the site would be down for 6-8 weeks, OPM promised an alternative solution for processing security clearance requests. Last week they offered it – in the form of paper processing of security clearance paperwork.
Paper processing is certainly a necessary step to help companies who need to get personnel to work. But the process will be tedious for new applicants. Filling out a 127-page document by hand and turning it in to a potential employer or security officer is hardly a ‘hi, welcome to a cutting-edge workforce.’ It’s more like ‘welcome to a broken system – we hope you’re really patient.’ Given the recent breaches and issues with data security, there is also a certain hesitancy about handing over 127 pages of sensitive personal information by hand. I don’t have complete trust in technology by any means, but I do tend to trust it over human error (which could result in lost paperwork, misplaced paperwork, or worse).
“We recognize and regret the impact on both users and agencies,” OPM Director Katherine Archuleta and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said in a memo to agencies late last week. “OPM is committed to resuming this service as soon as prudent and practicable.”
The second problem with the paper processing alternative is that it does nothing for Top Secret security clearances or investigations – that means professionals awaiting higher-level department positions, or who require a reinvestigation to do their jobs, will be left in the lurch. Six to eight weeks of a shut-down system will mean a painful backlog once the updated eQIP system is back online. And that pressure will go directly on the backs of security clearance background investigators who are already overworked, with pressure to produce quantity over quality.
Finally, paper processing puts another increased burden on the clearance applicant, at a time when it’s harder than ever to attract talented professionals to security clearance careers. In addition to completing the SF-86 by hand, applicants who fill out the form while the system is down will be asked to re-enter the information electronically once it’s back online. Perhaps the only thing worse than completing a 187-page document by hand is doing so and then being faced with the prospect of re-entering everything all over again. Professionals with other options may find themselves saying ‘thanks, but no thanks,’ and moving on to the next position.
OPM has some serious technological issues to address. But once it has addressed those, it will have some serious morale issues, as well. The ripple effect on the workforce will include currently cleared professionals, applicants, students, and background investigators.