OPM aims to clear the decks

Office of Personnel Management's e-Clearance project

When Energy Department officials attempted to upgrade security at their nuclear energy facilities after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, they faced a problem. They succeeded in hiring and training a new cadre of security guards but couldn't obtain the clearances that would allow the guards to actually start working, a DOE official told Congress in June.

Such situations are not new. Federal agencies and their contractors have complained for years about the time it takes to complete background checks and issue security clearances. The delays have only worsened since Sept. 11, 2001, because of increased concerns about security.

More employees and contractors now work with security-related information, and some of their jobs now are considered more sensitive.

"I think everyone's taking [the need for security] much more seriously," said Doug Wagoner, a vice president and general manager of Data Systems Analysts Inc., a Defense Department contractor.

Obtaining top-secret clearance often takes more than a year, according to several federal contractors. The Office of Personnel Management acknowledges that a year may elapse after the application is received, but a spokesman said the necessary investigation could take only a few weeks.

OPM is moving to modernize and speed the clearance process, through one of the Bush administration's e-government initiatives, dubbed e-Clearance. It reached a major milestone last week when it launched an online form, the SF 86, for applying for security clearances.

A new form, the SF 86C, also is online at the agency's Electronic Questionnaires for Investigations Processing, or e-QIP, site at www.opm.gov/e-qip. The SF 86C enables those with clearances to update their records without redoing all 13 pages of the SF 86.

The SF 86 normally requires at least two hours to complete, OPM officials said, and some people have to fill out the form as often as every few months.

Federal agencies must request clearances for their employees and contractors, OPM officials said. Individuals cannot apply for clearances on their own.

Meanwhile, OPM is proceeding with plans to absorb about 1,800 employees from DOD's Defense Security Service so that one agency will perform most background investigations for security clearances. OPM contracts out most of the investigations. The DOD agency and OPM have been working together to reduce DOD's investigation backlog.

The consolidation requires congressional approval, which is pending, according to OPM officials.

Despite those steps, industry officials want more changes in the clearance process. At the top of the list is modifying the policy that allows agencies to apply for clearances only for those who already have jobs or job offers requiring clearance.

Wagoner said an Information Technology Association of America committee soon will recommend that companies with national security contracts be allowed to apply for clearances for employees who may later need them. "What we're trying to do is expand the pool" of those who are ready to work on government projects, Wagoner said.

The ITAA committee also will urge that agencies accept clearances that other agencies issue. In some federal departments, one agency or bureau doesn't recognize the clearances of another bureau and requires a new application and investigation, he said.

Such changes "would have a tremendous impact on the cost of services" contracts, he said, because now contractors pay a premium to hire scarce employees with clearances and that cost is passed along to the client.

Increasing the number of cleared potential contract workers also would give agencies more would-be contractor companies to choose from, said Alan Chvotkin, senior vice president and counsel for the Professional Services Council, an association of companies that work for federal agencies. "For some companies, [the lack of clearances] is a competitive discriminator," he said.

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Seeking clarity

Electronic Questionnaires for Investigations Processing is the first module of e-Clearance. Still to come is deploying a massive database with personnel clearance information from all civilian agencies and linking that system to its DOD counterpart. For the first time, all background data from clearance investigations will be available in a single repository.

"Having that information in one place will mean you don't have to look for it in 38 places," said Alan Chvotkin, senior vice president and counsel for the Professional Services Council, an association of companies that work for federal agencies. n

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