Critics often accuse the government of operating in the past, (anyone reading this article on a government computer, possibly running Windows XP, would agree with that). Leaders within the government are often the first to assert this, and one particular focus in government is on just that – identifying key areas in need of transformation, and layering the resources and accountability needed to make change possible. The President’s Management Agenda (PMA) lays out that transformational agenda, and creates Cross-Agency Priority (CAP) Goals that allow for public, transparent tracking.
Security clearance reform has been a PMA focus that has seen significant change and progress in the past two years. Margaret Weichart, deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget, led PMA implementation, and recently announced she’ll be stepping down from the role this month. She chatted briefly with ClearanceJobs about the status of security clearance reform, the significant progress being made, and the next steps in transforming the security clearance process.
Weichart noted that when she arrived at her White House role, the backlog was significant, and Congress soon signed the National Defense Authorization Act transitioning the background investigations mission from the Office of Personnel Management to the Department of Defense.
“Throughout all of this, there’s an obvious need for continuous improvement and really moving to a more future-forward, agile process for establishing a trusted workforce,” said Weichart. “And so our three key areas of focus have been eliminating the backlog, doing the transfer of background investigations to the Department of Defense – ultimately what became DCSA – and doing something we’ve called Trusted Workforce 2.0, which is really modernizing the entire process, technology and tools, and reporting our trusted workforce activities, including a real embrace of continuous vetting.”
The number of pending security clearance cases is now at what has been a historic steady-state figure, at approximately 200,000 cases in the current inventory. With the backlog figure no longer the most important figure in the process, security clearance reform effort can move onto other numbers.
“We’re now focused very much on other metrics including the timeliness, the number of overall cases worked in the established timeframes for Secret and Top Secret clearance,” said Weichart.
With two of the three major focus areas of the PMA’s clearance reform efforts well in hand (the backlog and DCSA transfer), the focus is now shifting to Trusted Workforce 2.0.
“We are absolutely on a path to move towards continuous evaluation, particularly in lower risk circumstances, and we have just recently issued executive correspondence from ODNI, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and the Office of Personnel Management,” said Weichart.
Weichart noted technology improvements will allow them to enroll even more cases into continuous evaluation.
“In every case we’re balancing the need for speed and agility, with the core mission about having a truly trusted workforce,” said Weichart. “And so the goal is not just metrics around speed and timeliness, but it’s actually to increase quality, as well. And one of the things that continuous vetting does for us is it allows us to not go five years before we have red flags pop up that might make us want to look at the challenges in our workforce.”
Weichart’s Legacy: A Proactive PMA and a More Agile Government
Weichart had strong support for clearance reform efforts in Congress. When Weichart announced her departure from OMB last month, Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Mark Warner and Rep. Mark Meadows, ranking member of the Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Government Operations thanked Weichart for her efforts and support. Weichart noted she spent a significant amount of time on the Hill, working both clearance issues and broader areas related to improving and advancing the federal workforce.
Weichart came to OMB from Ernst & Young, and leaves for a new position with Accenture. In her 2 1/2 years at OMB, she pushed not just for “incremental improvement” – but business process improvement and true transformation.
“It’s really solving for a system level – not IT systems but business system level – set of challenges, so that we’re asking ‘what is it our target state needs to look like so that we can achieve better quality, lower cost and more timeliness?'” said Weichart. “We don’t buy into the premise that these are trade offs. We need all of those things to be true, and so we have to take enough of an innovative approach to make all of those things true.”
In her role at OMB, Weichart pushed for a more agile government – a kind that embraced the Six Sigma principles she lived out in the private sector.
“One of the things that has been a centerpiece of what I hope to bring to government from the private sector is the notion of creating routines that are repeatable, sustainable and rational,” said Weichart. She notes that’s the kind of routine the PMA, and the accountability of Performance.gov, help create. “They’re not episodic. So they’re not driven by a hearing on the Hill. They’re driven by the end of a quarter.”
Currently, Performance.gov releases quarterly reports on security clearance reform progress. They include updates on major lines of effort, like pending case inventory and Trusted Workforce 2.0, but also continuous vetting enrollment, current clearance processing times, and progress on more than 20 ‘key milestones.’
“That is a sustainable way of work, and we’re doing that for a host of things,” said Weichart. “It just makes for a simpler and more substantive conversation if we don’t get bogged down in ‘show me the metrics, show me the metrics.’ We can say, look at the metrics on Performance.gov – now let’s talk about root cause issues that are affecting those metrics. And so we spend more time talking about substance both between the Executive Branch and Congress, but also with industry, because we don’t spend the times where we interact just talking about the basic facts. People can read the basic facts on their own time and then we come prepared to meetings to work on issues.”