Workforce

Federal government rolls out new framework for security clearance process

code scan (Titima Ongkantong/Shutterstock.com) 

The federal government is rolling out a new framework to consolidate and improve a security clearance process that has received criticism across the spectrum for being slow, inefficient and overly reliant on manual procedures.

Trusted Workforce 2.0, unveiled Feb. 28, seeks to significantly overhaul the process by which the government investigates -- and re-investigates -- its federal and contractor workforce to handle sensitive or classified information.

"We know we need a mobile, agile workforce, and we can't do that with the current process," said Mike Rigas, deputy director for the Office of Personnel Management. 

For the first time OPM and the Office of the Director for National Intelligence (ODNI) have established a top-level doctrine for personnel vetting for agencies to follow. The plan reduces the number of tiers in the security clearance process from five to three: Trusted, Secret and Top Secret. The plan also aligns investigative criteria for security, suitability and credentialing requirements at each stage.

The plan attempts to address two issues that have plagued the clearance process for years: the time it takes to obtain an initial clearance and difficulties cleared employees have in moving from agency to agency.

One of the major obstacles to speedy processing of clearances in both cases is the amount of duplication in the investigation process across different agencies as employees or contractors move around.

The framework calls for a Trusted Information Provider Program that allows investigators to leverage certain information about a candidate's background that has already been collected by certain government and non-government sources, such as military recruiters, contractors or other third parties.

In line with the Department of Defense, the framework also envisions doing away with the five- and 10-year periodic reinvestigation process for current employees, moving to a more automated continuous evaluation system that will allow agencies to check candidates against seven different datasets of pertinent information. The framework will also significantly reduce the 13 adjudicative criteria that agencies rely on.

William Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, said the framework is intended to build off efforts last year and institute more rapid change in a policy area that has traditionally been slow to adapt or modernize.

"For the first time ever, I think the executive branch and legislative branch are on the same page," Evanina said.

Last year, the government took a series of actions as part of Phase 1 of the initiative to shave down its 725,000-long backlog of background investigations, including new guidance to federal agencies in July 2018 containing 15 specific measures, including reducing the threshold of certain forms of debt that automatically trigger more extensive investigations and making it easier for investigators to conduct secure video or teleconference interviews in lieu of field visits.

ODNI says that backlog is 551,000 today, and the number of manhours dedicated to the investigation process has dropped by 52 percent.

In 2018, the Director of National Intelligence released a Security Executive Agent Directive to all federal agencies mandating reciprocal acceptance of background investigations and adjudications. Evanina acknowledged that differences in workplace and organizational culture at different agencies remain an issue when it comes to reciprocity.

Bradley Moss, a lawyer who specializes in clearance and whistleblower cases, said forcing agencies to honor reciprocity will take more than a directive issued by ODNI. An employee who believes another agency is not following the directive would need an individual right to action to have the legal standing required to sue over it. Normally, that requires an act of Congress or the involvement of some larger, constitutional issue at play.

"I have never seen the courts willing to tell an agency it has to reciprocally accept a clearance," Moss told FCW.

Moss also said the Trusted Information Provider Program “worries” him and that he could foresee "serious problems with erroneous or misleading data" if it’s not implemented the right way.

"They are basically outsourcing their investigation and data collection to non-governmental third parties who don't necessarily employ the same standards and procedures as [OPM] for accuracy and completeness," he said.

In a briefing with reporters, Evanina acknowledged that changing the way agencies trust and accept information compiled by other entities would require cultural as well as policy changes. Right now, the framework is just a plan, and the government will spend much of 2019 briefing agencies stakeholders, developing agency-specific policies and implementing different aspects of the overhaul.

In a statement sent to FCW, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) said the changes implemented last year have helped reduce the background investigations backlog but "enduring and structural reforms we most need have been held up by the White House for the past several months."

"Trusted Workforce 2.0] will ensure that our approach to clearances reflects our dynamic threat environment, today's mobile workforce, and the use of modern technologies that can alert us of suspicious behavior" Warner said. "Congress is eager to help implement the core tenets of these reforms -- and as the Vice Chairman of the Intelligence Committee, which oversees the DNI, I will do my part to hold the executive branch accountable for progress."

About the Author

Derek B. Johnson is a senior staff writer at FCW, covering governmentwide IT policy, cybersecurity and a range of other federal technology issues.

Prior to joining FCW, Johnson was a freelance technology journalist. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, GoodCall News, Foreign Policy Journal, Washington Technology, Elevation DC, Connection Newspapers and The Maryland Gazette.

Johnson has a Bachelor's degree in journalism from Hofstra University and a Master's degree in public policy from George Mason University. He can be contacted at djohnson@fcw.com, or follow him on Twitter @derekdoestech.

Click here for previous articles by Johnson.


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