OPM sees green on clearances

Officials credit increased oversight for shrinking lengthy clearance times

Office of Personnel Management officials say, with numerous small steps, they have begun to shave days off a protracted security clearance process. They say they have done it by performing more oversight, improving communication with organizations involved in the clearance process and using information technology tools to relieve the logjam.

OPM is working against a deadline to meet benchmarks that lawmakers put in the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004. By December 2009, 80 percent of applications for security clearances must be completed in 60 days: background investigations must be completed in 40 days, and the adjudication process that leads to the approval or rejection of a clearance application must be completed in 20 days.

Since October 2006, security clearances have taken an average of 95 days to complete, according to recent congressional testimony. In fiscal 2005, secret or confidential clearances averaged 155 days, and top-secret clearances required an average of 347 days to complete.

OPM has developed stronger partnerships with clearance-granting agencies and national, state and local government agencies that provide information as part of background investigations. Those steps have helped streamline the process without sacrificing the quality of the clearances, officials say. The agency has also cultivated stronger ties with industry, whose contract workers represent a large segment of the population that requires security clearances.  

“Regular meetings and briefings have taken place to keep all groups informed on progress and as a forum to exchange ideas on ways to further streamline and improve processing,” said Kathy Dillaman, associate director of OPM’s Federal Investigative Services Division.

Dillaman said OPM has built more transparency into the investigation and adjudication process by using its automated Personnel Investigations Processing System to track individual clearance applications. “This allows us to identify bottlenecks or extensive delays in any of the steps of the process and track the timeliness of all actions,” she said. 

Dillaman added that OPM now has a quality control and oversight program to ensure that investigations meet national investigative standards and the needs of the adjudication community.

One of OPM’s biggest management challenges in improving security clearances has been the unpredictability of its workloads, Dillaman said. As a result, agencies involved in the process have had difficulty accurately forecasting their yearly staffing needs. 

OPM still needs more timely access to various sources of information necessary to completing a thorough investigation, Dillaman said. OPM relies heavily on the voluntary cooperation of agencies, private companies, supervisors, record managers, neighbors and personal references to complete personal interviews or conduct record checks, she said.

Some organizations are skeptical of the progress that OPM claims. Timothy Sample, president of the Intelligence and National Security Alliance, a professional association, said he has seen no appreciable improvement overall in processing clearances or in shrinking the backlog. Change must go deeper, he said.

 “Agencies must stop crafting their own requirements for mutual recognition of clearances,” Sample said at a recent Capitol Hill hearing. “We can add more obstacles to this list, including an outdated field investigation; agencies that refuse to honor other agencies’ equivalent clearances; and clearances that are tied to agencies as opposed to the individual.”

The problems with the process derive from a security culture steeped in risk avoidance, Sample said. He proposed moving to a culture of risk management and cited the financial industry as a model. Companies in that industry generally clear their employees within two weeks, he said.

Without such a culture, officials say, OPM must improve the efficiency of the process where it can through the use of IT. Each step in the clearance process that is performed electronically saves two weeks’ spent in manual handling and mailing, officials say.

The agency expects to see a steady increase in the use of the electronic Questionnaires for Investigations Processing (e-QIP) system to submit background information electronically, Dillaman said. Agencies’ expanded use of e-QIP has improved timeliness and lowered the rate of applications that OPM rejects as incomplete or inconsistent, she said.

Some congressional leaders, however, question whether OPM has sufficiently modernized its IT systems for its workload. Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio), ranking member on the Oversight of Government Management, the Federal Workforce and the District of Columbia Subcommittee, has investigated the government’s security clearance problems in hearings for years.

“I remain very concerned that the federal government, under OPM’s leadership, is not taking advantage of innovative technology available in the marketplace,” he said. 
Automated steps in the clearance processThe Office of Personnel Management has taken some steps to shrink the clearance application backlog that involve automating processes performed manually in the past.

Here are two areas in which OPM has introduced automation:

  • Fingerprint transmission system — allows electronic transmission of fingerprint images from a capturing device.
  • High-speed scanning center — converts ink-rolled fingerprint charts into digital images.
Both systems let OPM interact electronically with the FBI by making full use of the bureau’s Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System. They have also reduced processing time from weeks to five hours.

— Mary Mosquera

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