A couple of years ago it was common for security clearance leaders to be called to the carpet before a congressional committee to discuss the status of the 700,000+ backlog and security clearance processing delays which easily stretched past 500 days for the fastest 90% of applicants. Today, things are much more amiable – if not perfect – as evidenced by this week’s roundtable with Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency (DCSA) and industry leaders, hosted by the House Oversight and Reform Government Operations Subcommittee.
Committee Chairman Gerry Connolly even gave kudos to DCSA, noting the agency’s transition had gone “remarkably smoothly,” particularly given the challenge of being served up a pandemic shortly after the agency had gotten its sea legs. But while progress has been made and the inventory of pending cases is at ‘steady state,’ that doesn’t mean DCSA leaders can take their wheels off of the gas. Congress, government, and industry representatives pointed out the challenges to the personnel security process, including inventory, IT, and making Trusted Workforce 2.0 implementation complete.
Reciprocity Remains Critical Stumbling Block
Business process changes and the Trusted Workforce 2.0 policy framework have helped with many aspects of the security clearance process, but not with reciprocity, which remains one of the sticky points, particularly for industry. The push to continuous vetting (CV) is the push toward a ‘one clearance’ concept, where once an individual is cleared, and as long as they’re continuously vetted, they can move in and around positions with the federal government. But the move toward full CV implementation is actually creating more concerns for industry representatives struggling to transfer cleared personnel between contracts and agencies.
“We need to have that mutual understanding across the agencies of what is acceptable under the continuous vetting program,” said Jennie Brackens, personnel security director for SAIC.
Brackens highlighted the challenge of an aging cleared talent pool and noted that reciprocity forces contractors to put to person with the right clearance in the seat, reducing the size of an already incredibly small talent pool. DCSA noted they’ve reduced reciprocity within their agency from 6 to 3 days – but while DCSA is by far the largest agency dealing with cleared professionals, it’s not the only one. The Department of Homeland Security is notorious for a slow reciprocity process. For personnel hoping to move between missions, reciprocity delays can mean for months of lag time and missed opportunities.
“Eventually we’re not going to be able to fill the seats,” said Brackens. “We already have more positions than what we can fill right now within our company, due to that lack of personnel who have the required clearances and who can transfer easily, quickly and efficiently.”
NBIS Implementation vs. the Legacy Systems
The National Background Investigation System (NBIS) is the elephant in the room DCSA Director Bill Lietzau has been forced to eat one bite at a time. He’s noted the technology continues to be a major hurdle the agency has had to overcome, having inherited an archaic (and already hacked) technology system from OPM along with the new system built by the DoD. Those two systems still aren’t singing kumbaya, and getting them to (or going Office Space on that legacy system) will be key to moving Trusted Workforce 2.0 to the finish line. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) expressed skepticism that the NBIS roll-out will happen on schedule. DCSA has already demonstrated with the JPAS to DISS transition a willingness to adjust implementation based on benchmarks rather than the calendar. Regardless, for any progress to be made on reciprocity, agencies across the government (not just DoD), will need to opt in to using NBIS.
Marianna Martineau, assistant director for adjudications at DCSA, expressed confidence that agencies will opt to do so, and that NBIS implementation will make the vision of better reciprocity and CV a reality. Getting agencies to transition and transfer from their own systems to NBIS is not a guarantee, however, and NBIS will face some major performance hurdles – or need a congressional kick in the pants – to make that happen.