The response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks resulted in a huge increase in the number of security clearance cases, burying the agencies that conduct investigations into the backgrounds of applicants for sensitive government jobs. But a decade after the attacks of 2001, technology and revamped management have helped investigators finally dig out from under the mountain of cases and make vast improvements in the timeliness of security clearances.
When the Office of Personnel Management's Federal Investigative Services (FIS) took over primary responsibility for security clearances in 2005, the backlog of clearance cases had ballooned to nearly 150,000, and a case took about 200 days to finish, on average. But by using technologies such as paperless applications, automated records checks and digital fingerprinting, and by consolidating cases onto two databases, agencies — including OPM, the Defense Department and multiple intelligence agencies — have now eliminated the entire backlog and reduced the time to clear a case to an average of 47 days.
"The ability of government agencies and contractors to expeditiously hire qualified personnel was significantly improved," says Clay Johnson III, who was deputy director of management for the Office of Management and Budget from 2003 to 2009. "They can't serve the American people as promised without the right people being in the right job at the right time."
A Bad List to Be On
The situation was so dire before the turnaround that the Government ÂAccountability Office placed the security clearance program on its list of high-risk programs. Congress held more than a dozen hearings on the situation, lambasting agencies for the delays. In 2009, OPM implemented a detailed plan aimed at improving the efficiency of the investigative process, transforming automated processes and minimizing the cost to produce investigative products. The plan had a major impact, and in ÂFebruary 2011, GAO removed the ÂDefense ÂDepartment's clearance program from its high-risk list, making it the first ÂDefense program on the list to shed the tag.
In 2010, OPM conducted 623,454 security clearance investigations, of which 90 percent of all initial clearances were completed in an average of 49 days (90 percent of initial security clearances for industry personnel took an average of 63 days). Brenda Farrell, GAO's director of Defense capabilities and management, says the clearance program is now an example of success that can help other agencies overcome similar processing hurdles.
"OMB, Congress and executive agencies can apply lessons learned from DOD's security clearance program to make further progress on areas that remain on GAO's high-risk list," Farrell says.
In addition to the time savings, improvements in the clearance process reduced administrative and investigative costs. These cost savings help OPM minimize the rates it charges its agency customers for investigative products, according to Merton Miller, associate director of FIS.
Technological improvements were a major part of the clearance turnaround. "Agencies looked at their internal processes and worked toward making more accurate workload projections, reduced the number of investigations rejected because of missing information and incorporated technology in their adjudication process," Miller says.
For example, OPM expanded its Central Verification System, which stores clearance investigation information, and linked it to Defense's Joint Personnel Adjudication System. Information on both databases, which account for roughly 90 percent of all federal investigative records, can now be accessed by all users of either system. Sharing this information helps investigators avoid duplicating work that's already been done.
The Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 (IRTPA) called for a single integrated database, but OPM, DOD and the intelligence agencies elected to keep the databases separate but interoperable, citing concerns about security and data ownership.
"Agencies need to stay focused on their investigation workload projections and the electronic tools that are available to speed the security clearance and investigation process," Miller says. "Any plan to improve the efficiency of the security clearance and investigation process must consider system security and protecting the exchange of data between agencies and record providers."
Privacy is also a major consideration. In conducting clearance investigations, OPM collects a vast amount of personally identifiable information, which agencies must handle with utmost care.
"We must consider the quality of the information obtained and balance the government's need to collect sensitive information for adjudication with the individual's right to privacy when the background information that could be obtained is irrelevant to the security clearance determination," Miller says.Â
In 2010, 98 percent of national security investigations were submitted through the Electronic Questionnaires for ÂInvestigations Processing system. The automated system has made the process easier for applicants, who no longer have to fill out paper forms by hand. The e-applications speed up processing and reduce costs associated with shipping and handling. The quality of the data also has improved, minimizing the time investigators must spend correcting mistakes.
The use of digital fingerprinting has sped up the process too. OPM captures fingerprint images on electronic scanners and sends them to the FBI for a match against the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System. Using fingerprints taken on paper required months of waiting for results, but electronic fingerprinting reduces turnaround to a matter of hours. Nearly 70 percent of the 1.2 million fingerprints that OPM submits to the FBI are now sent electronically.
Percentage of executive branch security clearance investigations that come from the Defense Department
SOURCE: Government Accountability Office
OPM also expanded its use of electronic delivery of completed investigations to agency customers. OPM has delivered about 1.5 million investigations electronically, saving time and money, and also making its products more useful for customers.
In addition to technological improvements, leadership from agencies and Congress helped foster the success of the security clearance program.
"We have previously noted that top leadership must be committed to organizational transformation," Farrell wrote in a GAO report.
The commitment she called for in the report was displayed by the agencies involved. DOD and intelligence agencies formed the Joint Reform Team to address the issue, and an executive order established the Performance Accountability Council to improve and oversee the security clearance process governmentwide. This reform leadership coordinated with GAO throughout the reform process, contributing to a clear understanding of expectations and progress.
"DOD's security clearance program, which processes hundreds of thousands of security clearances annually, is a success that illustrates how congressional oversight and executive agency leadership can result in a more efficient and effective program," Farrell says.