The time it takes to process a security clearance continues to increase, according to figures recently released by the National Background Investigations Bureau.
Overall security clearance processing times are up, along with the time it takes to process a security clearance specifically for Department of Defense industry applicants.
Current security clearance processing times for defense contractors are 543 days, up from 533 days last quarter. Secret clearance processing times, which had seen a slight improvement, were also worse in the second quarter of Fiscal Year 2018 – 259 days. Top Secret reinvestigation clearance processing times saw the largest increase – it is now taking 697 days to process the fastest 90 percent of Top Secret reinvestigations. Top Secret reinvestigations aren’t even being submitted until the six year mark; slowing processing times mean the majority of Top Secret clearance investigations are close to 8 years old.
What Steps are Being Taken to Fix the security clearance Problem?
A Performance Accountability Council consisting of White House and government leaders has 11 key milestones they are working to address, including the complete transfer of the background investigations program to the Department of Defense (DoD), reducing the size of the backlog, improving reciprocity and establishing continuous evaluation. The plan includes timelines for the completion of key reforms, but the government has a history of missing established deadlines or deleting them entirely.
Industry leaders are increasingly calling out the 750,000 case backlog as a national security issue. The PAC notes several initiatives are in place to help address the backlog issue, specifically hubbing, surging and focus areas. Hubbing seeks to concentrate field work and improve scheduling; surging assigns several investigators to a specific workload heavy area.
NBIB Director Charles Phalen testified to the success of surging and hubbing in testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee earlier this year. He noted that surging had been used at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in order to push through a high volume of pending investigations. The first industry hub was conducted on April 30, 2018 with Lockheed Martin in Orlando, Fla.
While these efforts appear to be making progress in niche markets, the government’s approach to addressing the backlog is more slow and steady than fast and fury. The PAC update notes the clearance backlog – which is ticking up along with processing times – is set for a 20% reduction by the end of 2018. Moving the backlog to a manageable and sustainable number isn’t set until March of 2021. That means even the government’s best guess is that we’ll be facing a sizable backlog in pending investigations for at least the next three years.
But Wait – Isn’t DoD Taking Over Investigations?
Some have speculated that DoD’s move to take over investigations means processing times should be improving. But it’s important to keep in mind that just as the PAC is suggesting a three year timeline for addressing the backlog, DoD is also proposing a three-year-timeline for taking over the background investigations process from NBIB. While the current plans for NBIB to roll under DoD haven’t been released, if the implementation plan for DoD taking over its own investigations is any indication, it will be 12 months or more before DoD begins managing the Secret portion of the investigations process, and two to three years before it will manage the Top Secret investigations process – currently the slowest component of the background investigations program.
It will be working to address the backlog, implement CE, and improve processing times – all while establishing new operational structure. Unfortunately the old adage ‘there’s nowhere to go but up’ applies to process improvements in the background investigations program – but it may also appear applicable to processing times as the government looks to overhaul authority over the personnel security program.