Background checks aren’t as simple as what movies and TV would have you believe. While there is indeed a lot of information that can be found online or otherwise accessed from a computer, in many cases there is a continuing – and actually increasing – need to pound the pavement. According to data from the President’s Management Agenda Report, the amount of field work has increased since 2013.

Yet both “High Fieldwork Intensive” and “Less Fieldwork Intensive/Special Agreement Checks” have increased since 2014. For higher risk positions, more extensive work in the field is needed as many cases require manual follow-ups. The Less Fieldwork Intensive Checks are for those cases that typically require little to no work in the field – such as for automated fingerprint checks or clean cases. These are generally used for lower risk positions.

why is more field work necessary?

This increase of time in the field followed the release of classified documents by Edward Snowden. Another case responsible for this uptick was the September 2013 Brooklyn Naval Yard mass shooting by Aaron Alexis.

USIS (US Investigative Services), a contractor formerly charged with conducting background checks for the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), conducted both the checks on Snowden and Alexis. These breaches prompted public outcry and investigation into the background investigation process. A February 2014 staff report from the House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform found flaws in the Federal Security Clearance Process.

Today, the level of clearance field work required will depend on the level of clearance being requested. For “Secret” level clearance about 25% of applications require field work by a background investigator. Investigators may be sent into the field to check your police records. Field investigators may conduct interviews with neighbors, supervisors, co-workers, classmates and/or references.

More Field work may not be the best solution

However, there is already a debate over how important the actual field work may be. Charles Phalen, director of the National Background Investigation Bureau (NBIB), suggested that technology – rather than fieldwork – could be utilized to streamline the background check process. “We need to be able to get at information, collection information more reliably, more quickly through technology as opposed to shoe leather,” Phalen explained in a March Senate Hearing as reported by FedScope.

Changes in how fieldwork is conducted could be coming soon. The 2018 National Defense Authorization Act provides the Department of Defense with the authority to conduct background checks for its own personnel. This move is hoped to reduce the backlog that has weighed down the NBIB.

Gary Reid, DOD’s director for defense intelligence and security suggested that the Pentagon could begin the first phase of this transition process as soon as October. This could automate much of what has been described as the “shoe leather” practices in the background investigation process.

“Using gated data tools that I’ve talked about can get us 90% of everything that we’re getting now from the field investigations on the front end, and then the tools can focus on the last 10%,” Reid explained in the March Senate hearing. “We will still have to go out and do some field work, but 90% of the field work can be handled through automated processes.”

With this in mind, the future may require less pounding the pavement and more pounding the keyboard.

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Peter Suciu is a freelance writer who covers business technology and cyber security. He currently lives in Michigan and can be reached at You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.