Security clearance process still transforming

Monday - 12/29/2008, 7:54pm EST

By Jason Miller
Executive Editor
FederalNewsRadio

The effort so far to improve the amount of time it takes to process federal employee and contractor security clearances has focused primarily on improving the current approach.

But to meet the 60-day mandate for initial investigations set out by Congress in the Intelligence Reform Act, the focus has to be on transformation.

John Fitzpatrick, the director of the special security center in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, says the reform effort is well on the way to meeting the governmentwide goal.

"One of keys will be sustained leadership attention and accountability as we move into implementation phase," Fitzpatrick says. "We need agency leaders to establish this as a priority in their organizations, [and] focus their attention and resources on implementation of reform processes."

In a Dec. 19 report to Congress, the Performance Accountability Council (PAC), which is overseeing the reform effort, says the average time it takes to complete a new security clearance was 128 days for Defense and civilian agency employees. This is down from 265 days three years ago.

The Office of Management and Budget sent the report to Capitol Hill detailing how agencies are reducing the amount of time it takes to complete new investigations and reinvestigations.

OMB's annual report to Congress finds that the intelligence community was the only group of federal and contractor employees who received their new security clearances in less than the Executive branch goal of 105 days. The intelligence community took only 102 days on average.

For reinvestigations, it took 200 days for all agencies, but the intelligence community did reinvestigations in 135 days on average.

A key piece to this transformation is the information technology strategy, which is scheduled to be completed in February.

The report details short and long term goals for how technology should be incorporated into the security clearance process. Some of the short term goals include several pilot projects that will take off in 2009.

For instance in September, the Office of Personnel Management expanded its clearance verification system to include information collected from issuing Homeland Security Presidential Directive 12 secure identification cards. By next September, OPM wants to expand the base of users who can search this single database that will help enable reciprocity and reducing unnecessary requests for information.

OPM also plans on upgrading E-Quip, the electronic questionnaire form for investigations. The report says E-Quip will become more interactive and collect more information starting in December 2009.

The Air Force has a central adjudication facility that automatically pays OPM for the service's investigations. The Defense Department is evaluating whether they can expand it to more Defense Department services.

The PAC plans on implementing electronic signatures starting in February for all application and electronic release of information authorizations, and the council will do a feasibility study on the use of existing and planned fingerprint scanning stations across the government by February.

But Beth McGrath, DoD's assistant deputy chief management officer, says the technology strategy is dependent on how well the council deals with change management.

"If you don't change the processes and policies first, it doesn't matter what information technology system you build," she says. "Whenever you are implementing IT, it should be to make your processes more efficient and effective and that is where your people are mostly involved."

McGrath says the employees have to understand it is OK to do things differently, or electronically adjudicate employees.

"This is how we live in the commercial space," she says. "Yet applying those commercial processes in the federal space is more challenging."

McGrath says by changing policies and processes, it will more easily enable reciprocity.

She says OPM and ODNI earlier this month agreed to common investigative standards.

"These standards will help with reciprocity too," McGrath says.

Fitzpatrick, however, says the PAC will develop metrics to measure just how well agencies are accepting other federal security clearances.

"Reciprocity exists in the federal government," he says. "My ability to point to data that shows how or how much or by contracts where the efforts go, I can't do with definition."

Fitzpatrick says a lot of work over the past year also has been to institutionalize the reform effort. The PAC governs the changes and will make sure the reform effort continues into the next administration.

McGrath adds that there is strong congressional support for continued improvement and that will help ensure the reform program continues.

She says, however, that there hasn't been any specific conversation with President-elect Barack Obama's transition team about the security clearance reform effort. But she says DoD, ODNI and others agencies have developed briefing books for the transition team about this issue.

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On the Web:

FederalNewsRadio - OMB details security clearance reforms

FederalNewsRadio - GAO: DoD Still Hung Up on Security Clearances

White House - 2008 security clearance progress report to Congress

Tags: management