The Intelligence and National Security Alliance (INSA) hosted a panel discussion this morning focused on next steps for security clearance reform. Tish Long, Chair, INSA board of directors moderated  panel including Senator Mark Warner, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Jason Miller, deputy director for management, OMB, and chair, Performance Accountability Council, Stu Shea, president and CEO, Peraton, and Carey Smith, president and CEO, Parsons Corporation. They discussed Trusted Workforce 2.0, implementation of continuous evaluation/continuous vetting, steps to improve personnel mobility, and the rollout of National Background Investigations Services (NBIS).

Next Priority for Senator Warner

Before diving into security clearance reform, Senator Warner highlighted the importance of national security and the intelligence community, citing the role that the IC has played especially in the days leading up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Senator Warner joked that he always thought that clearance reform was a short-term project. But the complexity of the system, processes, and people involved has made this more of a long-term career goal. While it’s clear that the backlog of pending cases has been addressed, and processing timelines are down, panelists agreed that this was just a start. The next steps are to build out the IT backend for NBIS. Senator Warner acknowledged that reciprocity also has a long ways to go, as well as adding more polygraph capabilities to prevent bottlenecks at key stages in the process.

Senator Warner also made a request for allies to join in the reform process. Data is helpful in moving the dial within congress, so those interested in seeing reform move forward must continue to provide metrics. While many are passionate about the issue, it takes actual numbers to continue to implement key changes going forward.

Trusted Workforce 2.0

Smith said that when it comes to talent management, security clearance issues have a major impact on hiring and retention. The onboarding process is in desperate need of improvement. If we want the best and the brightest in national security, we have to be able to attract talent before Silicon Valley swoops in, she said. Getting interns cleared right out of undergrad or graduate programs can be a game changer in creating a cleared pipeline. Representing industry for the panel discussion, both Shea and Smith agreed it’s challenging when industry is continually swapping the same cleared candidates back and forth.

Miller highlighted the intricate choreography that he and his team follow in order to implement NBIS and to make the move to Trusted Workforce 2.0. With four million people employed in the federal government and a skills gap that continues to grow, Miller said that 2022 is the year to drive it forward. Changes will continue to be released  – even in the next few weeks. Policy is required to drive initial changes, but Miller explained that the final move to 2.0 and expanded tech capabilities of NBIS can only be achieved when government, industry and congress work together.

The Technology Piece of Reform

Shea recalled how many times in his government career he has had to submit the same hundreds of pages of the SF-86 – he also noted that timelines today are four times longer than what he experienced when he first entered the government.

Miller noted that the move away from Periodic Reinvestigations to Continuous Vetting is a key component of finding the issues faster and implementing data analytics and AI-solutions to address the problems. Historically, the federal government has struggled to make major transformations, so the OMB and Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency (DCSA) team are working together to plan and implement this overhaul. One key tracker for progress is the timeliness metric. The faster the system can move to run checks on the front end, the more interim clearances that will be issued going forward.

Policy and Legislation

Smith said that industry has an important role to play in both technology and policy rollouts. While NBIS will be a better system, the more industry can be involved in the process, the more seamless implementation can be. Because currently, reciprocity continues to be a hurdle. Every agency has set up their own processes and procedures; however, a centralized level of oversight is needed to interpret the guidance so it’s implemented uniformly. If it takes over a year to transfer an employee from one agency to another, we can all be certain that near peer threats aren’t waiting a year to strike, Smith noted.

Senator Warner noted the complexity of dealing with a system that has to both vet initial employees as well as monitor for extremism among those already cleared.

Insider threat issues are a valid concern when it comes to quickly vetting employees and candidates. Long shared, “We’re never going to get to zero risk – that’s not the goal. We need to mitigate risk but not avoid it.” Long encouraged federal agencies to continue to play a role in sharing information with each other and industry on best practices and any derogatory information on personnel.

Concrete Actions Ahead?

It’s hard to find anyone who disagrees about the need for security clearance reform. However, which changes to start with are sometimes harder to identify. Some key recommendations from the panelists:

  • Shea pointed out that he currently has four badges for IC agencies. Getting a uniform approach to not only the clearances but also the badges can go a long way in streamlining the process and reducing the headaches for personnel.
  • Senator Warner pushed for policy changes on getting security clearances for senior managers. He shared that industry leaders need to be able to hold security clearances in order to have sufficient oversight within their organization and national security.
  • Smith shared that the number of available clearances needs to increase – especially for interns. Long noted that some agencies are allowing industry to have billable interns on their projects.
  • Shea said that industry needs more mobility. As candidates move back and forth between organizations, the review process is tied up. Cleared candidates need the mobility to move to different programs to grow their resume and for organizations to best maximize their talent. Long agreed, saying, “You clear the person – that’s what it needs to be.”
  • Miller highlighted the importance of moving from older systems to the new. Policy changes are a key piece of the puzzle, but we need the systems in place to support it too. And given all the clearance horror stories on crazy timelines, Miller also shared that while we currently track just the fastest 90%, the new system will switch to measuring 100% of the data. Then, we can begin to move forward in finding and plugging the holes. And don’t be shy about sharing anecdotal evidence. Real clearance processing timeline experiences provide context and clarity on the current issues.

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Jillian Hamilton has worked in a variety of Program Management roles for multiple Federal Government contractors. She has helped manage projects in training and IT. She received her Bachelors degree in Business with an emphasis in Marketing from Penn State University and her MBA from the University of Phoenix.