Change – and good news – is on the way. That’s the overall message from leaders of the security clearance process. Addressing the crowd at the National Security Institute’s Impact Seminar, Charles Phalen, Director of the National Background Investigations Bureau (NBIB), shared encouraging numbers on the shrinking security clearance backlog.
What’s more, he and other leaders reinforced the many shifts in mentality that leaders hope will revolutionize the security clearance process and improve national security.
What’s the Latest Update on the Security Clearance Backlog?
As thousands of clearance applicants can tell you, the last several years have seen unprecedented delays in security clearance processing times. Thanks to a complex cocktail of factors – including major security breaches by the likes of Manning, Snowden, and Alexis – the security clearance inventory reached all-time highs.
At this time last year the backlog stood at 725,000 cases.
Thanks in huge part to Phalen’s leadership, that number is now down to 498,000 – a reduction of 32%. And these numbers are actually better news than they seem at first glance; the goal is not to bring the backlog to zero. The process should be able to handle a “steady state” case inventory of about 200,000-250,000 and work at proper capacity. Based on that, Phalen was quick to point out that this reduction now puts NBIB 43%-47% on the way to their overall goal.
But what about security clearance processing delays? Phalen blames some exceptional cases for skewing overall averages, but he knows that this is still a problem.
“The numbers are still not where they need to be, but we’ve moved that needle significantly,” says Phalen. We’ve improved wait times 50-60% in many categories, but have some outliers that skew the averages.”
The Backlog Has Been an Unlikely Catalyst for Change
No one guiding the security clearance process wanted this backlog to happen. In addition to affecting the careers of hundreds of thousands of clearance holders and applicants, it’s put the nation at huge risk. An inefficient, overlogged process increases the likelihood of error and has prevented critical national security positions from being filled.
“It would be very oversimplified to say that we’re changing vetting because of the backlog,” said Gary Reid, Director of Defense Intelligence. But he went on to say that the backlog has forced conversations with lawmakers, intelligence officials, and defense officials on how the security clearance process needed reform.
Some Field Work Is Being Swapped for Continuous Evaluation
Reid called out field work as first in need of reform. “The back-breaker of this system is the field work – which is incredibly time consuming. 70% of our money for background investigations goes into field work.”
Simply throwing more money or more personnel at the problem would not work. “We realized we can’t hire or spend our way out of this because the more people you put out there, the more inefficiencies go up. 25% of an investigator’s time is spend behind the wheel of a car traveling, so we’ve had to break out of this mentality. Information learned only from the field interview only affects 20% of interviews.”
Reid was quick to clarify, though, that this is not at all the fault of field investigators. “No one’s saying that the people out there aren’t doing their job – we’re saying that the job we gave them to do is unworkable.”
In contrast, he explained how the increased use of continuous evaluation has drastically reduced costs and efforts.
“We are now up to over 100,000 clearance holders in DoD who came up for PRs [periodic reinvestigations] who didn’t break the threshold for requiring an investigation, so boom, their PR is done and it cost us less than $100.”