You know the feeling. You wait patiently to hear from the OPM security investigator. Since last August, I’d been on the lookout for the little card that announces “I’m a U.S. Security Investigator -please contact me.” When it arrived on my doorstep last week, I immediately contacted the investigator, eager not to be part of a delay in my colleague’s clearance renewal. No, she said, this was about a neighbor, whose paperwork was submitted….get ready….in February 2016. Right.
A year later, an investigator is diligently working the case as quickly and thoroughly as possible. This generated a conversation with the investigator about the delays that continue to plague OPM. We didn’t waste time on how it got this bad, or what date it will be set right. She graciously apologized, and I believed her when she said the organization was doing all they could to accelerate clearance investigations. Still, our conversation inspired (in me, not her) an afternoon of spelunking through the OPM digital domain to determine how bad it is, or was at the close of 2016, and what level of relief is realistically on the horizon.
How Bad Is the current investigation backlog?
OPM examined the timelines of the most rapid 90 percent of their security investigations each year since 2013 through 2016. Here’s a comparison of the 2013 and 2016 numbers.
An OPM Inspector General report released in October 2016 attributed the delays to the 2014 termination of the contract previously responsible for conducting the investigations, as well as funding shortfalls that affected the former Federal Investigative Services’ ability to add more staff to the federal and fieldwork contract force. The end of the Federal Investigative Services and activation of the National Background Investigations Bureau, which officially happened in October 2016, holds promise, if not sky-high expectations to shake loose the backlog.
bad credit and the clearance backlog
It’s a bit like credit card debt. With additional applications being filed daily, it’s difficult to see how NBIB will reach the end of the tunnel. Though the application rate may slow somewhat due to the President’s hiring freeze, the freeze will expire in less than 60 days. Charlie Phalen, the NBIB Director, has articulated his goal of investigations being completed within 40 days for a Secret clearance and 80 for a Top Secret – quite ambitious coming out of the 2016’s timelines. The longer it takes OPM to dig out of the backlog, the further out of reach Phalen’s goal seems. The Inspector General report also noted that the former FIS underestimated the workload projections by 22%. Even if these workload projections had been accurate, the investigative service still would not have been able to close the large gaps between what was projected and the delays that were seen in 2016.
The Good News
The debt will be paid more quickly this year. In addition to the 400 employees OPM hired in FY 2016, OPM plans to hire an additional 200 investigators. OPM also has additional contracts underway for additional background investigation functions. NBIB has also aligned its IT infrastructure with the Defense Information Systems Agency, which will automate some of the more basic adjudication functions in clearance reviews. NBIB Director Phalen has also emphasized that while resolving the backlog is a priority, shortening investigation timelines in the overall process is his agency’s focus. While his priorities might seem inverse to the significance of the problems, it has merit. The sooner his team can crack the code on shortened timelines, the sooner it can be applied to the backlog.