For those waiting for security clearance approval there is some good news – the emphasis on “some.” The federal government reduced its security clearance rate by 9% from June to September of this year according to a new report from the White House’s Performance.gov.

This follows the findings of report from the National Background Investigations Bureau (NBIB), which also highlighted that there has been progress on the backlog of personal security clearance investigations. According to the report the backlog has been reduced from an all-time high of 725,000 to 657,000.

This is good news not only for government agencies, but for federal contractors as well. However, there is a still significant room for improvement.

NBIB Cannot Issue Interim Clearances

One is that NBIB, which is the primary provider of background investigations for the federal government, is unable to grant interim clearances. Instead the responsibility for granting those interim clearances lies within each individual Federal agency. The White House and Congress have both expressed frustration at this backlog, and have called for the clearance and background investigation responsibility to be moved from the Office of Personnel Management to the Department of Defense to help speed up the clearance process.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) is also developing its own directive to clarify guidance to federal agencies in respect to granting interim clearances. ODNI, as the Security Executive Agent (SecEA), could thus be best positioned to comment on the status of the guidance and government-wide metrics that pertain to interim clearances.

Technology could be another solution to speeding up what has remained at times a painfully slow process. Government contractors have been calling for the use of artificial intelligence, machine learning, and data-mining technologies to help streamline the clearance process. For now however the process will remain handled by investigators, and unlikely to pick up speed.

Size of the security clearance Backlog

While progress was made this past summer, a breakdown of the numbers from July highlights how serious an issue this remains.

As of July 2, there were a total of 235,861 initial national security clearance investigations on federal employees in NBIB’s pending inventory. This included 65,110 investigations for Top Secret clearance, and 170,751 for Secret clearance. There were also a total of 136,464 periodic national security clearance reinvestigations on federal employees in NBIB’s pending inventory – including 67,013 for Top Secret and 69,451 for Secret clearance.

The number of initial investigations for employees of federal contractors totaled 77,719 as of July 2, with 32,877 investigations for Top Secret clearance and 44,842 for Secret. Reinvestigations for federal contractors stood at 81,257 in July – 52,390 of those investigations were for a Top Secret clearance, while 28,867 were for a Secret clearance.

As of July 2, 2018, there were 85,721 Top Secret and 196,768 Secret initial national security clearance investigations for employees (and contractors) of the Department of Defense. Top Secret initial clearance investigations included 59,210 Federal employees and 26,511 employees of federal contractors; while of the total Secret initial clearance investigations, 153,923 were on federal employees and 42,845 were on employees of federal contractors.

The number of periodic reinvestigations for employees of and employees of contractors of the DoD was 84,280 for Top Secret – 47,607 are on federal employees and 36,673 are on employees of federal contractors – and 93,306 for Secret, including 65,920 federal employees and 27,386 employees of federal contractors.

These investigations were handled by 1,714 NBIB federal field investigator employees and 6,687 contractor field investigator employees as of July 2. NBIB’s contractor investigator count is tracked in OPM’s case management system.

Reducing the Security Clearance Backlog

There are several factors at play that have impacted the security clearance process, and one of the biggest is the size of the investigative workforce. While this is not the only issue, it is one that needs to be addressed – at least beyond present efforts.

NBIB has already increased the capacity of its investigative workforce from 5,843 federal and contractor investigators on October 1, 2016 to more than 8,400 federal and contractor investigators as of this year. NBIB has also stated that it plans to continue to increase its workforce numbers.

The other significant issue to overcome is that the background investigation process is currently heavily reliant on the availability of existing IT systems as well as the delivery of new and advanced automated systems. NBIB has said that improvements in timeliness will require on-time implementation of certain IT systems that provide process efficiencies.

It has been noted, too, that from 2009-2014, OPM Federal Investigative Services (NBIB’s predecessor organization) was able to perform timely processing of cases. Furthermore it met the timeliness goals required by the Intelligence Reform & Terrorism Prevention Act.

Establishing the Trusted Workforce 2.0

NBIB has attempted to correct the course to reduce the backlog. This will not only include increasing the investigative workforce, but NBIB as a member of the Trusted Workforce Executive Steering Group is now actively involved in the establishment of the Trusted Workforce 2.0 effort. It will be focused on pursuing reform to overhaul the fundamental security, suitability, and credentialing vetting enterprise.

The trusted workforce is just one of four work streams that the federal government will advance to accomplish its goals of reducing the clearance backlog as noted in the Peformance.Gov report. It called for a modern clearance process, which could transform the government’s approach at a fundamental level, revamping the policy framework and process to a more effective and efficient model that leverages the latest innovative technologies.

In addition, the government must rebuild the end-to-end information technology to accelerate the implementation of new policies and processes and to improve the cyber security posture of the enterprise; and utilize outcome-based metrics, research and innovation as well as an institutionalized executive branch-wide model to continuously evaluate and improve policies and processes.

The final piece to these improvements is the exact cost associated in streamlining the clearance process. Earlier this year the Executive Office of the President published its government reform plan, “Delivering Government Solutions in the 21st Century: Reform Plan and Reorganization Recommendations.”

One of the government-wide reorganization proposals at the time called for the full transfer of the background investigations program from OPM to DoD, which would remove the possibility that the background investigation systems would be bifurcated. However, because the details of this initiative are still in the planning stage, NBIB is not yet in a position to report on the costs associated with the future-state enterprise.

 

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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 petersuciu@gmail.com.