Clearance reform gets a boost
Recent executive order clarifies roles, sets agencies’ responsibilities
A new Bush administration directive could mitigate one of the sticking points that plague the federal government’s process for granting security clearances: reciprocity.
Agencies are often unwilling to accept clearances granted by other agencies, forcing career-changers — and their would-be managers — to wait out a process before they fully can move into a new job.
Executive Order 13467 mandates that other agencies accept background investigations and adjudications conducted by one agency. Once the process is in place, this order is expected to help reduce the backlog, freeing resources to focus on new clearances.
Although this is only one of numerous problems with the clearance process, the Bush administration has laid a foundation on which to begin the reforms, observers say.Shaping reforms
The order creates two executive agents to resolve security investigation issues and set standards to apply governmentwide. It also establishes a council charged with ensuring the reforms move ahead.
“The new order finally clarifies the roles and responsibilities of the agencies involved in both the suitability and security clearance processes,” said Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee’s Oversight of Government Management, the Federal Workforce and the District of Columbia Subcommittee.
Some members of Congress say it’s a good next step toward reforms that senators, such as Akaka and George Voinovich (R-Ohio), the subcommittee’s ranking member, have pushed for several years.
“It is my hope that the new council, headed by the Office of Management and Budget, can work closely with clearance stakeholders to put new systems into place that will cut down on the redundancies and inefficiency that plague the current process,” Akaka said.
Voinovich believes new technology and information sharing policies across the executive branch will improve the system, said the senator’s press secretary, Garrette Silverman.
Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), ranking member of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, believes the order could bring much-needed reforms, such as faster processing time for simple clearances, said Brian McNicoll, Davis’ spokesman.
“Now, he hopes it is carried out as stated,” McNicoll said.
Bush’s move toward reform is, in large part, a building block for the next president. Many reforms ultimately hinge on whether the incoming administration views the security clearance problems as a high priority, said Trey Hodgkins, vice president of federal government programs at the Information Technology Association of America.
Agencies will need to spend the money necessary to upgrade from old computer systems, or in some cases, paper-based processes, he said. But the effort won’t get the needed money or attention from the next president if the issue ranks low on a long list of major concerns.
“We can’t let it fall off the plate,” Hodgkins said.Executive order
The executive order establishes two key players in the clearance process:
- The security executive agent, to be the director of national intelligence, who will oversee investigations into eligibility for taking on sensitive jobs in government and ensure that all departments use consistent standards.
- The suitability agent, to be the director of the Office of Personnel Management, who will focus on applying procedures related to background investigations, the order states.
The order recognizes that the security clearance and suitability determination processes have to be reformed congruently, said Clay Johnson, deputy director for management at OMB.
With the authority in the executive order, the two agents together can require even reluctant agencies to move toward reforms, experts say.
“In the past, it was equals debating around the table,” said Stan Soloway, president of the Professional Services Council.
“Agencies were their own center of power,” Hodgkins added.
Bush’s building blocks also formalize a joint reform team that has been in place for several years under Johnson’s direction. The Suitability and Security Clearance Performance Accountability Council will be the force behind the security clearance reforms. It will also drive agencies to adapt to changes and pressures the executive agents to reform the system.
The executive order states that the council will:
The case for reform
- Ensure suitability and security processes are aligned.
- Hold agencies accountable for completing suitability and security processes and procedures.
- Establish requirements for enterprise IT.
- Set annual goals and progress metrics.
- Oversee the development of tools and techniques for improving background investigations and determining eligibility.
- Settle disparities in procedures between the suitability executive agent and the security executive agent.
- Ensure sharing of best practices.
- Advise the two executive agents on policies that affect how investigations and adjudications align.
Officials say agencies do too much manual work, and the IT system OPM uses is out of date.
“Literally, caves full of hundreds of thousands of file folders, along with a dozen computer programs bolted together make up the backbone of the investigation process at OPM,” Akaka said at a recent hearing. “Though some may consider this system the Cadillac of IT solutions, unfortunately it is a 25-year-old model, probably suited for a car museum.”
Officials driving the clearance reforms must link agencies’ unique data-entry systems so they can share information among them. The executive order mandates comprehensive automation that stretches across the entire executive branch. The council is charged with making sure such tools are developed while establishing requirements for enterprise IT systems.
The clearance process also has other shortcomings. OPM, the agency primarily involved in handling the investigative services for civilian agencies, had incomplete investigative reports, and Defense Department adjudicators granted some clearances despite the missing data from incomplete reports, according to the Government Accountability Office.
The clearance process is notoriously slow. Some former officials who needed clearances said they expected to wait until their terms of service were nearly over before they were cleared.
GAO said those delays can lead to a heightened risk of disclosure of classified information, additional costs and delays in completing related contracts, and problems retaining qualified personnel.
In 2005, GAO put DOD’s personnel security clearance program, which represents 80 percent of the government’s clearances, on its high-risk list. The list pinpoints programs that, if poorly supervised, are at a higher risk of fraud, abuse and mismanagement.
Congress passed legislation in 2004 to require that a team figure out how to reform the system. Eventually, officials commissioned the Joint Security and Suitability Reform Team to drive efforts to develop the security clearance and suitability systems. The executive order formalized the team and added the two executive agents.
Johnson said investigations and adjudications that were taking an average of 160 days have been cut to 105 days. The statutory goal is getting 80 percent of security clearances finished within 90 days. With improvements, he said determinations will be made within 60 days.
“We are more than halfway there. But, there is a lot more to do, and the president’s executive order institutionalizes that commitment by creating the governance structure necessary to make sure the needed reforms are made,” he said.