Clearing the way

In the not too distant future, federal employees and contractors applying for a security clearance with the government should experience a shorter, automated and less painful process as the e-Clearance program gets under way.

The Office of Personnel Management is managing the e-Clearance project, designed to streamline the government's clearance and background investigation process. It is one of the Bush administration's 24 e-government initiatives.

E-Clearance will automate a paper-intensive clearance process, reduce the burden on people applying for government jobs, cut the time it takes to process clearances and reduce duplication, said Dan Blair, deputy director of OPM, at a briefing March 17.

OPM processes about 2 million clearances annually. If Congress allows OPM to absorb the Defense Security Service, which is the agency that conducts background investigations for the Defense Department, that number will rise to about 4 million.

OPM officials anticipate saving more than $258 million in the next 10 years in part by saving time and reducing paper. They expect to spend $54.3 million on e-Clearance during that same period.

The Homeland Security Department is one organization that expects to benefit from the e-Clearance program, said Ann Tursic, chief of the department's Personnel Security Division. "We will leverage all the tools made [available] to us through e-Clearance," she said at the briefing.

Many employees are coming to the new department from other government agencies and, as a result, may already have received a security clearance, Tursic said. "We will have reciprocity," she said, adding that those employees will not have to go through another clearance process, but they will have to provide the appropriate paperwork.

E-Clearance should help those in charge of processing clearances, too. "We will see a significant workload reduction and an increase in efficiency in processing the cases," said Joe Mahaley, security director at the Energy Department.

For vendors, e-Clearance means employees can start working on government contracts sooner. "The long-term payoffs will be much greater than the short-term payoffs," said Pete Grau, special security officer at Lockheed Martin Management and Data Systems.

E-Clearance consists of three components, said John Crandell, OPM's e-Clearance project manager, but some of the smaller pieces that make up the program are already coming together.

Available now is the shorter, electronic Standard Form 86C that will allow federal employees to update their most recent longer, paper-based SF 86 form. The new form will take federal employees five to 10 minutes to fill out vs. the traditional paper-based form, which takes about 90 minutes to complete.

"We ask for the information we need, not the information we already have," Blair said.

SF 86C is available now online, but won't be completely automated — meaning employees can fill it out and submit the form online — until June. That is when OPM will launch its Electronic Questionnaires for Investigations Processing (e-QIP) project that will make other forms available online, including SF 86 and SF 85.

OPM also has loaded more than 80 percent of the government's civilian security clearance information into its database, the Security/Suitability Investigations Index, and has linked it to DOD's Joint Personnel Adjudication System. For the first time, any agency can conduct a single search to find investigative and clearance information on an employee, including contractors.

"It's the key to locating people's investigative history," Crandell said.

The e-Clearance program's final piece is imaging. Beginning in late May, agencies will start digitizing all new clearance and background records stored in 20 repositories so that they can request, retrieve and disseminate investigative files. Old files will remain in paper form until requested, he said.

Meanwhile, to help agencies with the transition to e-Clearance, OPM has established a learning lab in Crystal City, Va., to train people on e-QIP and other investigative applications.


E-Clearance milestones

E-Clearance consists of three main components. Here's an update on their status:

Electronic Questionnaires for Investigations Processing — Automates Standard Form 86 so it can be electronically submitted. Available in June.

Clearance Verification System — Via a single search, enables agencies to find investigative and clearance information on employees and contractors. Available in June.

Imaging — Enables the creation, storage and retrieval of digital investigative information. New records will be digitized beginning in late May.


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