The federal government has earned praise the past few years for making improvements to the security clearance process. In fact, at a Homeland Security and Government Affairs subcommittee hearing in June 2012, it was reported that the time for initial investigations was down to 44 days, from 189 in 2005.
However, no matter how positive these numbers look, there is still work to be done to further streamline the process and manage the end-to-end lifecycle of investigations.
At the same Homeland Security and Government Affairs subcommittee hearing, it was also reported that while 22 agencies met their timeliness goals in 2011, 19 reached their goals only some of the time-and five agencies did not meet their timeliness goals at all. This means that many positions either go unfulfilled or taxpayers are paying approximately $684 per day in lost salary for each worker because they are not able to do the job they are being paid to do without an adjudicated clearance.
Per the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 (IRTPA), agencies authorized to grant clearances must complete at least 90 percent of clearances within an average of 60 days – 40 days to complete the background investigation and 20 days to complete the adjudication determination. Title III of the Act specifically aims to bring greater efficiency, speed and interagency reciprocity to the security clearance process.
Let’s step back for a second and look at how the personnel security clearance process is conducted currently. There are three main phases to the process:
1. The application submission process — An agency-level security officer requests an investigation of an individual requiring a clearance through the Office of Personnel Management (OPM).
2. The investigation phase — Conducted by OPM (or an agency or department with delegated authority from the Office of Management and Budget to conduct their own investigations), federal investigative standards and OPM’s internal guidance are typically used to conduct and document the investigation of an applicant.
3. The adjudication phase — Adjudicators from an agency use the information provided by OPM to determine whether an individual is eligible for a security clearance.
With 4.8 million federal government and contractor employees holding or eligible for a security clearance, and with the number of investigations growing each day, what should the federal government do to ensure they are complying with Title III of the IRTPA and that background investigations are conducted in a timely and efficient manner?
Currently, there are numerous technological tools available to government agencies for facilitating the background investigation process, with OPM providing access to many of these technologies. Tools like e-QIP provide a web-based automated system to collect subject data for the standard investigative forms used to conduct background investigations, and others such as the Clearance Verification System (CVS) promote reciprocity across the federal government and provide the status of active clearances. Several agencies have even developed their own electronic systems for handling the adjudication of background investigations.
However, even with the benefits of these technological tools, the one thing that is missing from the background investigation process is a standard, government-wide tool that brings all the technologies used, and data gathered, during the three phases of a background investigation together in one complete case management system.
The lack of an end-to-end personnel security clearance case management system, one that unifies the systems being used by federal agencies, drives up the cost of investigations, limits visibility into the background investigation process and inhibits the ease of reporting and tracking.
Additionally, without an end-to-end solution it is exponentially more difficult to facilitate responsible information sharing across agencies and to promote reciprocity of adjudicated clearances. These challenges combine to delay the time it takes to complete an investigation, meaning agencies struggle to meet their timeliness goals.
As a means of uniting disparate technologies, and the data they capture, and speeding the overall investigation process, a standard personnel security clearance case management system, like the one used by the Department of Justice (DOJ), would increase interagency reciprocity, increase the quality of investigations and streamline and accelerate the entire background investigation process-providing both improved efficiencies and significant cost savings.
The DOJ’s Justice Security Tracking and Adjudication Record System (JSTARS) has transformed the background investigation process by providing a centralized, agency-wide system capable of maintaining and tracking all data relevant to background investigations, re-investigations and security clearances. Developed not to replace current technologies, JSTARS compliments and unifies the variety of government systems used during the background investigation process.
Like JSTARS, a similar government-wide personnel security clearance case management system would not aim to replace or replicate technologies currently in use. Instead, an overarching solution that can be layered on top of existing technology could be used to track the data throughout the process and facilitate responsible information sharing and increase the capability for reciprocity.
As agencies consider their need for an end-to-end personnel security clearance case management system they must also consider the technological requirements to make such a system a reality. In order to make it easier to integrate with other technologies and systems being used currently, an end-to-end case management system must be built using an open architecture and open standards.
There are tremendous benefits to designing a government-wide, end-to-end personnel security clearance case management system (really any government-wide system) using open architecture. Open architecture empowers agencies to improve communication and speed processing efforts, ensuring that products, systems and procedures are connected from start to finish. Open architecture also enables platforms and products to be quickly and easily adapted to suit evolving requirements.
Finally, it provides visibility into every step of the background investigation and security clearance process, ensuring that agencies effectively and successfully integrate with other entities involved in the process.
To improve the security clearance process, drive down costs, reduce redundancies and reduce errors, process technology and collaboration must take a front seat. With more than 4.8 million federal government and contractor employees holding security clearances-and that number growing by roughly three percent each year-this issue has never been more important.
Growson Edwards is Senior Vice President of Business Development at Herdon, VA-based MicroPact. Paul Wilkinson is Vice President Strategic Market Development at Fairfax, VA-based Salient Federal Solutions.