The beleaguered background investigations process really can’t get a break. While there have been years-long periods of uneventful business as usual, there has also been a regular cycle of reform and being in the government hot seat – literally.
With all of the focus on everything the government has done wrong, it is worth noting what has been done to improve the process. A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released in December, in addition to calling out all of the problems with the personnel security program, noted areas where the government was working to improve quality.
Here are a few recent policy improvements to the security clearance process which have been made.
1. Implementing Quality Assessment Standards
The goal of Quality Assessment Standards is to create consistent criteria for evaluating investigations across all government agencies. A part of the goal of quality standards is to ensure consistent completeness. In the downfall of former background investigations provider USIS, one major issue was the number of incomplete investigations being punted forward for adjudication. In the multiple audits that followed, the need for consistent investigation quality was one recurring recommendation.
ODNI developed a Quality Assessment Reporting Tool (QART), allowing agencies to report on the completeness of investigations.
2. More consistent adjudications.
The background investigation is a product. Security clearance eligibility is granted through the adjudication process. Which like investigations themselves, has its own problems with consistent application across agencies. In addition to improving investigations the QART is designed to make it easier for adjudicators to determine if an issue has been sufficiently mitigated to justify a favorable clearance determination
“DOD officials highlighted issue resolution—having enough useful information about the circumstances surrounding a given issue to make an adjudicative determination—as a persistent challenge with background investigations for personnel security clearances, and as key to determining investigation quality,” the GAO report noted. ODNI officials stated full implementation of the QART was to occur in 2017.
Beneath every silver lining for the background investigation process, however, there is some black cloud. Despite complaining about the lack of information needed to successfully adjudicate, DoD officials told the GAO they don’t intend for all of their adjudicators to use the QART. The GAO noted it will be difficult for the QART to be successfully implemented if DoD – responsible for the majority of adjudications – refuses to use it.
3. Security Executive Agent Directives (SEADs)
Five SEADs were issued as of August 2017. SEAD 4 created a single, common adjudicative criteria for all individuals requiring access to classified information. Other SEADs related to the use of social media in the background investigations process, and clarifying the use of polygraphs in the background investigation process. In a world where policy change is painstakingly slow, these updates signal significant improvement to the security clearance process.
The pain is real. But so is the progress. As we lament slow processing times and clearance backlogs, it’s worth looking back at where the government has pushed for progress and reform.