Last week the Professional Services Council Foundation, a policy research organization devoted to federal contracting, announced that it is forming a task force devoted to tackling the mired federal security clearance process. The Strategic Advisory Group, as the task force will be called, is a collaboration with the Intelligence and National Security Foundation, a non-profit devoted to studying challenges facing the intelligence community. The group will be made up of former senior officials in government and executives from private industry, and seeks to evaluate the effectiveness of ongoing clearance reform efforts, and find new ways forward from there.

“The big picture issue is that there are too many positions that require a clearance, too few people who have those clearances, and a process that doesn’t provide sufficient throughput in a timely manner to make the demand either for people or workforce for positions,” says Alan Chvotkin, the executive vice president and counsel for the Professional Services Council.

The Professional Services Council Foundation exists to provide education and research around significant conflicts of interest in the federal marketplace. Chvotkin tells ClearanceJobs that the results of that research are handed off to others; the foundation engages in no advocacy of its own as result of its work.

“The objective is to further the understanding of security clearance issues, and the relevance and importance that security clearances have in the federal marketplace. That’s bringing together former officials who have a lot of experience managing and operating in the security environment to offer their input and advice,” he says.

“I don’t think a similar group exists anywhere in government today or in the recent past.”

HOW DID WE GET HERE

In 2014, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) ended its background investigations contract with U.S. Investigative Services (USIS) after that group sustained a cyber attack. Absent now what had then been the backbone of the clearance adjudicative process, an almost-insurmountable backlog of applications grew at a seemingly exponential rate. The following year, OPM sustained a cyber-attack of its own, and an attendant, catastrophic leak of background data. OPM, left to its own devices and lacking manpower and money, could not handle the hundreds of thousands of cases that were piling up and the simultaneous fallout of the cyber attack. Though stopgap and reform measures have been implemented since then, the process has yet to recover. Last year, the backlog climbed above 700,000. Top Secret clearances with no issues (i.e. the easy, fast adjudications) still take over a year to process; in 2013, they took less than three months.

If the USIS-OPM one-two punch wasn’t the cause of current clearance process problems, it was certainly an inflection point, says Chvotkin.

“Those two events in some combination contributed significantly, but neither of those events had anything to do with high government demand for cleared positions,” he notes.

The federal government establishes which sort of work requires cleared access, which positions doing that work require clearances, and at what clearance level. This means the case officer processing signals intelligence, but it also means the janitor emptying waste bins at night. As of Fiscal Year (FY) 2016 (the latest available figure released earlier this year), the number of cleared persons was just under four million—a reduction of about one million positions from 2013, but still an untenable number when investigators can’t keep pace.

“We’re seeing a repeat of what we saw five to ten years ago, where we don’t have the mechanisms to on-board people through that clearance review process fast enough to meet demand: the demand from agencies for cleared people, and the demand from contractors to perform that work,” says Chvotkin.

Contractors make up about one-third of the clearance backlog. The largest segment of incomplete investigations involve uniformed military and civilian government employees.

“Contractors are not unique in feeling the pain of the security clearance investigation and adjudication process,” Chvotkin explains. The makeup of the new task force, with government officials and industry leaders, reflects the cross section of stakeholders who need this problem solves. One concept Chvotkin sees as solving the backlog is reciprocity. “There’s no reason to restart [an investigation] if there have been no changes; employees should be able to carry clearances to other jobs much more easily than they are able to do so today.”

Earlier this year, David Shedd, former acting director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, discussed clearance reciprocity with ClearanceJobs. Presently, a security clearance held in one position may not transfer cleanly to another office, even if the clearance level in question is identical. Reciprocity would solve this.

IS THERE HOPE?

Presently, the National Background Investigations Bureau (NBIB), stood up by OPM in 2016 to help solve the backlog, is redesigning its process to include new surge offices and technological streamlining. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence is revisiting the sorts of questions that investigators will ask (and thus need to verify). Moreover, there has been greater transparency with respect to clearance adjudication metrics—numbers easy to obscure and thus mask the nature of the problem. There are also “continuous evaluation” initiatives underway that, while they will not immediately solve the problem, will relieve future bottlenecks in the investigation and adjudication process. So the backlog isn’t being ignored. 

The bigger question, perhaps, is whether the National Background Investigations Bureau goes away entirely, to be replaced by something else. The Department of Defense, after all, is poised to assume control of its own background investigations. Chvotkin thinks NBIB will survive, though in any event, investigators need the resources to do their job.

“Look, somebody has got to do the background investigations, whether it is done under the leadership of the OPM or the leadership of the Department of Defense or the leadership of somebody else.” He says that the National Background Investigations Bureau does clearances for dozens of federal agencies and activities, and will thus won’t be ended so easily. “I hope that as we look down the future at different alternatives, that they will have the access to necessary resources and the funding to do the job.” If they don’t, he says, then it doesn’t matter who does the job. “If they don’t have the capability and don’t have the resources, then I wouldn’t want it.”

A representative for the Strategic Advisory Group says that it will begin releasing information later this year.

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David Brown is a regular contributor to ClearanceJobs. He is currently at work on his next book, One Inch From Earth, which tells the story of scientists who study the outer planets of the solar system. He can be found online at https://www.dwb.io.