OPM tech speeds background checks

With the number of background checks it must conduct on potential federal employees jumping by 50 percent to 60 percent this year, the Office of Personnel Management is turning to information technology to get the job done quickly and accurately, officials said.

Automated forms, digitized and easily searchable employee records, and electronic imagery have proven so important to OPM's investigative arm that $5.8 million of the new funds requested for the agency in the president's fiscal 2003 budget is aimed at "e-clearance" efforts, among other things.

For example, a live scan machine, which makes a digital image of a prospective federal employee's fingerprints, has helped OPM cut back the processing time for one of the most crucial elements of a background check. OPM has cut the time from weeks to hours, said Richard Ferris, associate director of OPM's Investigations Service.

Instead of rolling each fingertip in sticky ink, the employee places his or her hand on a glass screen, from which a digital image is taken, Ferris said. OPM adds electronic identifiers to the image and e-mails it to the FBI, which in turn runs the image through its fingerprint database.

"In the past, getting [a response on a] fingerprint check from the FBI would take 30 to 60 days," Ferris said. "With the live scan equipment, we can get turnaround from the FBI within five hours."

Rapid-response technology will be a boon as OPM, which now has responsibility for background checks on all civilian employees in the federal government, faces an increased workload in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The Aviation and Transportation Security Act, signed Nov. 19, 2001, established the Transportation Security Administration and mandated that explosives-detection systems be installed in airports across the country by the end of the year.

To fulfill that mandate, the government must hire tens of thousands of airport baggage screeners and federal sky marshals — and OPM will have to investigate all of them, Ferris said. Last year, the agency completed about 1 million background checks, "but this year we're looking at 1.5 to 1.6 million, or maybe even more," he added.

By comparison, as recently as the late 1990s, OPM conducted 200,000 to 400,000 background checks per year, Ferris said.

Other elements of the "e-clearance" efforts at OPM include:

* The creation of a set of standardized electronic security forms for governmentwide use.

* A clearance verification system for more than 100 civilian agencies, which eventually will be linked to the Defense Department's system.

* A new initiative to digitize the millions of investigative records on file at civilian agencies.

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