Unclogging the clearance pipeline

Facing a shortage of workers with security clearances, agencies have been forced to find new ways to deal with the backlog

Like thousands of young adults who migrate to the nation’s capital every year, Rob, an undergraduate student at Worcester State College, arrived in Washington, D.C., last fall. He had come to serve an internship at the Homeland Security Department’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission office. Among other things, Rob  was eager to see firsthand how government works.

Indeed, he did. The young man from Massachusetts never worked a day at DHS. He had applied for a mandatory security clearance, required of all DHS employees, but his application was delayed, stuck in a pipeline clogged with hundreds of thousands of such applications. He’s still waiting. He learned a lesson about government that has vexed many a would-be federal worker: no clearance; no job.

The case of the frustrated intern may be the most innocuous consequence of a failed system for granting security clearances. Of greater significance, the disjointed and archaic system used to vet applicants for sensitive government jobs is choking the supply of talented information technology workers and other professionals who are needed to do the work of government. Moreover, the counterproductive system for clearing people to work in sensitive positions is creating an artificial labor shortage that, at a time of heightened attention to national security, may be making the country less safe.

“This is a great threat to national security,” said Herb Strauss, a vice president and principal national security analyst at Gartner Intelligence.
The executive branch has issued assurances that the problem is abating, but some observers predict that the security-clearance crisis could get worse before it gets better.

Financial consequences
The shortage of skilled workers with security clearances has driven up the cost of attracting and retaining workers qualified to fill positions involving classified, secret and top-secret programs. Lockheed Martin has offered signing bonuses of $20,000 to qualified workers with security clearances. Another government contractor has lured cleared workers last year by giving away a pair of BMW automobiles.

As expected, the competition for cleared workers is particularly stiff in Washington. The going rate for an Oracle database administrator in the nation’s capital has jumped from between $70,000 and $90,000 to $120,000, in some instances, said Tony Ingenito, an employee of Northrop Grumman and a member of the Joint Personnel Adjudication System (JPAS) Industry Program Management Office Committee, which oversees the Defense Department’s database of cleared workers.

The squeeze is being felt in other cities with a significant federal presence — and beyond. “We’ve heard stories where some of the employees in Qatar or Kuwait or Iraq who are running networks or managing databases or managing links back to the continental United States come to the realization that because they have top-secret clearance, they can leverage a better salary,” said Trey Hodgkins, senior director of defense and intelligence programs at the Information Technology Association of America. “They are job shopping. We’ve heard of people working two or three months, moving and getting a bonus…The bottom line is that it’s costing taxpayers more.”

Despite paying higher salaries and bonuses for cleared workers, federal agencies and private-sector businesses that support government contracts can’t get enough credentialed people to keep pace with government work.

To take a typical example, a contractor has a certification and accreditation contract that calls for assessing a critical supply network within 90 days, only after which a dozen applications that reside on that network can be certified, as required. If the contractor is able to retain only five of the 10 cleared workers needed to complete the first stage of the task, the 90-day project becomes a six-month ordeal, which in turn delays completion of subsequent phases. 

“There is a massive waterfall effect in terms of productivity, which delays the whole process,” said Yong-Gon Chon, a senior vice president at SecureInfo, an information assurance provider to the federal government. “Because of a lack of ability to be able to meet the demand for cleared positions, the overall work is actually slowing down.”

The demand for cleared workers is particularly high at DOD, which declined to discuss the effect of the clearance crisis on specific programs. A prepared response to an inquiry into the impact of the security challenge nonetheless conceded that “the lengthy clearance process has consequences.”

A rising tide
Since the September 2001 terrorist attacks, intensified scrutiny of national security has exposed longstanding flaws in the way the government investigates and adjudicates security-clearance applications. A number of factors have contributed to the problem, including a doubling of applications for top secret clearance. The increased volume is taxing the system at all levels, including field investigations, which entail checking local law enforcement records.

“I used to be able to go to a sheriff’s office in North Carolina with 20 [security clearance applications] and get them done,” said Kathy Dillaman, associate director of the Office of Personnel Management’s federal investigative-services division. “When 20 became 200, it became…an issue of resources for them, too.”

Other problems include antiquated technology, system incompatibility, a lack of funds for making necessary upgrades and agencies’ refusal to recognize clearances granted by other federal organizations, despite mandated reciprocity.

If OPM’s investigative-services division didn’t have enough on    its plate, Homeland Security Presidential Directive HSPD-12 served another helping. That directive requires people who work at federal facilities to undergo a security check, which OPM performs electronically.

“We are all feeling a little bumpiness along the way,” said Donald Reid, senior coordinator for security infrastructure at  the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security, which is doing better than most. Last fall, OPM recognized the bureau for making its security-clearance application process more efficient.

“We have the advantage of owning our own resources,” including 600 field investigators across the country, said Jim Onusko, director of personnel security and suitability at that bureau. “If somebody needs to be in Iraq next week, we can put a five-day suspense on it.”

Most federal agencies have far less control over the process. To get security clearances, they rely on OPM, which investigates 90 percent of the people who apply for clearance. The other 10 percent largely comprise intelligence agency applicants. OPM, which two years ago took responsibility for DOD’s clearance investigations, has struggled to process 1.6 million applications annually, up from 325,000 a decade ago.

“We are fixing something that was broken for a long, long time,” Dillaman said. “It didn’t break overnight, and we won’t fix it overnight.”

Coping with the backlog
Until then, agencies are coping as best they can. Unable to get the people they need on staff, the federal government increasingly is looking to the private sector.

“They are outsourcing their work to contractors,” said Evan Lesser, director of ClearanceJobs.com, an online registry of cleared workers.

The government is outsourcing a variety of jobs, not only in IT but also in engineering and finance, Lesser said. “Work in Iraq is being outsourced to contractors. They are outsourcing intelligence jobs traditionally done by the FBI, the CIA and National Security Agency. Most of it is because of this [security clearance] issue,” he said.  

Moreover, in the competition for qualified, credentialed employees, federal agencies are losing out to the private sector.

“Contractors are very cutting edge,” Lesser said, citing their use of social networks and Web sites to recruit employees. “The government is still using career fairs and newspaper ads…If you look at the most skilled IT professionals, the majority are working for contractors,” he added.

Unable to attract the most qualified workers, agencies have decided to go after the youngest. Some intelligence agencies, for example, have been identifying candidates coming out of high school and offering them security clearances.

“They are trying to groom these kids for a lifetime of service,” Lesser said. “They have no history. Obtaining a clearance for them is a pretty quick process. Teenagers are getting internships and their fathers can’t get jobs at the same agency because they don’t have clearance.”

Dealing with a bad situation
Federal agencies and private-sector organizations are using various strategies to cope with the shortage of qualified, cleared workers. They are hiring less-skilled employees who have security clearances on the theory that it’s easier to teach skills than to negotiate the process for gaining clearance. They are recruiting cleared workers away from other organizations, a tactic referred to as stealing by losing organizations. They are requesting and using more interim clearances, and they are seeking lower-level clearances than employees need, on the theory that it’s easier to get top-secret credentials if clearance of some type has already been granted.

Each of those strategies has potential drawbacks. Interim clearances essentially suspend, for a time, the guarantee that people in sensitive positions have been thoroughly vetted.

“It does introduce an element of risk that in many areas is just not acceptable,” OPM’s Dillaman said. “I think it is used very judiciously.”

DOD, however, said it, “as a standard practice, issues interim clearances based on risk management principles.” The statement responded to an inquiry into workarounds that DOD has used to cope with the clearance challenge.

The shortage of credentialed workers has led to cutthroat tactics among contractors. Desperate for cleared employees, companies are plundering the labor rolls of competitors, a tactic that shifts the problem without solving it.

Worse, perhaps, organizations are hiring cleared workers who, in some cases, lack required skills. “They are starting to place people who may not have the level of expertise, but they have the security clearance,” Ingenito said.

To smooth the application process, savvy operators have learned various tricks of the trade, said Wynn Phillips, president of JPASpros, which helps small defense contractors to use DOD’s JPAS personnel adjudication system. If a worker needs a top-secret clearance, first get a secret clearance and then request an upgrade, Phillips advises.

David Shedd, chief of staff in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, agreed that such tactics are necessary. By seeking clearances “in an iterative way ... you don’t lose that potential employee and his desired skills just because it takes six or nine or 12 months to get through the security clearance process,” he said.

Looking ahead
The Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 mandates that, by 2009, 90 percent of applications for security clearances be adjudicated within an average of 60 days, including 40 days for investigation. Many doubt whether that benchmark is attainable.

“Those are very ambitious goals,” Dillaman said. “We need to re-examine how this fits together and if this is even possible.”

No one has suggested that OPM is anywhere near that point.“The two major issues that we see where we can improve the overall system is around process and technology,” said Bill Mixon, president of the investigative-services division of USIS, the largest provider of background investigative services to the federal government.  “If you look at some of the inherent processes that exist in the clearance arena, many of them are somewhat antiquated, to be honest, and can be streamlined from a process perspective,” Mixon added.

Some agencies are much further along than others. The National Reconnaissance Office, Mixon said, is “using a new state-of the-art IT system to streamline their process.”

Across government, however, a major demographic shift could further tighten the supply of cleared workers, Strauss said. The federal workforce is graying, and half of its members will be eligible for retirement by 2010, he said. Unlike in the past, when federal retirees with security clearances would work in the private sector for a few years before fully retiring, fewer former feds are taking that option.

Notwithstanding that dire outlook, Dillaman said that “tremendous progress has been made” on granting security clearances to qualified applicants.

But could things get worse before they get better?

Predicts Strauss: “It’s gonna get worse.” 

Pulley is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va.
Same story, different endingsTwo recent reports that assessed the federal government’s progress in processing applications for security clearance applications reached significantly different conclusions.

In February, the Security Clearance Oversight Group, led by the Office of Management and Budget, told a story of success. Its report states that government agencies are making significant progress in determining security clearance eligibility and reducing the backlog of aged investigations. After Oct. 1, 2006, requests for initial security clearance investigations by the Office of Personnel Management, which reviews more than 90 percent of clearance requests, were adjudicated in 118 days on average in 80 percent of the cases, according to the report.

The Government Accountability Office reached a different conclusion in its report, “DOD Personnel Clearances: Additional OMB Actions Are Needed to Improve the Security Clearance Process.” Released in September 2006, the report states that for 2,259 cases in which top-secret eligibility was granted between January and February 2006, “industry personnel contracted to work for the federal government waited more than one year on average to receive top secret clearances, longer than OPM-produced statistics would suggest.”

Moreover, investigators found that the vast majority of completed applications were missing critical documentation required to comply with federal investigative standards.

Federal guidelines call for adjudicating 90 percent of applications within 60 days by 2009.

— John Pulley

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Reader comments

Fri, Jun 26, 2009 David Wilson Elizabeth City, NC

I worked directly on the creation of the database system in place at the USCG Security Center in Virginia, and part of my job while I was there was the attempted integration of various departmental databases, DHS, OPM, DOD, etc. Even just within one organization, there were two or three databases, unreconciled, with no change in site, despite the efforts we were making. The length of time to get an interim clearance at the SECRET level is much shorter now, measured in days and weeks; it was months not too long ago, so strides have been made. Until all government agencies get together, layout their requirements, and consolidate security clearance data into a single verifiable source, delays will continue, and the value of the data will remain questionable. What's necessary is on-site evaluations of the "now" picture of each database involved, a clear picture of the goal, and a plan to get from point A to point B. What stands between that, from my experience, are the kings of many smaller ponds who do not want to change software, methodology, or levels of control ... and data that is so hopelessly out of sync that there is a fear of letting the reality surface. The simple act of changing the name of a person with a clearance due to divorce can throw the system into fits and result in multiple entries with different data, and in some cases the only method for fixing it is to generate sheets of paper to stack on a worker's desk until they have time to hand code it into the system...which of course is not monitored for accuracy. The Security Clearance database problem is one of the most incoherent jumbles facing DHS currently, and without full cooperation from all agencies involved, it isn't likely to get fixed any time soon. My company specializes in the type of workforce / process transformation this would entail. It's doubly frustrating to understand the problem, and it's complexity, and to know it could be fixed. As for the length of time to get a clearance, though, that is just not as long as this article indicates any more. If the hiring entity has a competent Facilities Security Officer, and he keeps on top of the system, clearances can be had in less than a month. DNW

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