Clearance process gets makeover

Lean Six Sigma will shape plan to achieve efficient and uniform security clearances

The clearance overhaul

A governmentwide proposal to transform the security clearance process will include the following components, according to officials who are leading the interagency effort.


  • An automated records-checking system that would use government and commercial electronic databases and replace some manual investigations.
  • A continuous evaluation program that would make frequent use of automated record checks of cleared employees and replace the current practice of reinvestigations every five or 10 years.
  • A new electronic application that would collect security-related information, including electronic fingerprints, early in the clearance process, reduce errors and speed processing.

— Mark Tarallo

A governmentwide plan to overhaul the security clearance process and introduce more automation will soon be headed for White House consideration, according to leaders of an interagency team that is crafting the proposal.

The team has made Lean Six Sigma, a business improvement methodology, a central element in the plan, said Elizabeth McGrath, the Defense Department’s principal deputy undersecretary of business transformation.

McGrath is a co-leader of the interagency Joint Security Clearance Process Reform Team, which is directing the effort.

The security clearance overhaul is “one of the most ambitious process improvement projects that has been undertaken” with Lean Six Sigma, McGrath said.  

Security clearance delays have been a major operational problem for the federal government. Office of Personnel Management officials say that with recent improvements, most employees are now cleared in 120 days.

However, performance goals in the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 require faster clearances. By December 2009, security clearances must be completed in 60 days. Such an improvement requires a complete overhaul of the clearance process, the project team leaders said.  

“Only through the transformation of this process will we be able to reach these goals,” said team co-leader John Fitzpatrick, director of the Special Security Center at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.   

Underscoring the urgency of security clearance reform, Bush administration officials issued a directive in February that requires interagency leaders to submit a reform proposal to the president by April 30.

The team expects to meet that deadline with a plan that will include reform measures along with a vision of the end state, McGrath said.

“Our initial response to the president will include recommendations for near-term implementation opportunities based on studies and demonstrations we have completed,” McGrath said.

The team has used Lean Six Sigma methods designed to eliminate waste and variance in the security clearance process at its four main stages — application, investigation, adjudication and reinvestigation — and improve workflow between each stage, McGrath said.  

A central element of the methodology involves creating a map of operational processes, said Tom Morin, a Lean Six Sigma expert at Guidon Performance Solutions.  

Once a team maps a process, it thoroughly analyzes it. That leads to the discovery of points in the process where unnecessary delays occur or regulatory requirements are factors. The team asks questions, such as “Why do we do it this way?”

Some organizations make the mistake of rushing to upgrade information technology before they have adequately analyzed the process, Morin said. “Don’t assume that just because there’s an IT system that can speed things up, it’s going to solve the problem.”

The April 30 plan will be followed by more proposals, McGrath said. “Subsequent proposals are needed to ensure sustained momentum through the change of administration,” she added.

Tarallo is a freelance writer in Washington.

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