When the Government Accountability Office updates its list of high-risk management areas in federal government in the next couple of weeks, the Defense Department is hoping it will be at least one item shorter.
The Pentagon’s deputy chief management officer, Beth McGrath, said Friday that she is crossing her fingers that one of the Pentagon’s long-standing problems will have made enough progress to satisfy auditors concerns that major issues have been addressed.
Although she didn’t specifically name which area she’s crossing her fingers for, McGrath spent a significant amount of time talking about improvements the department has made to its personnel security clearance program-an area that’s been on GAO’s list since 2005. McGrath said DoD has made major strides in reducing the backlog of clearance applications and speeding up the process of making clearance decisions.
“In 2006 our backlog was over 100,000,” she said. “The average time to get a security clearance for the fastest was over 165 days, and there are anecdotal stories that take that timeline a lot longer than that. We have put time and attention in, we are monitoring and managing the throughput and the timelines, and the averages now are under 60 days.”
GAO updates its high-risk list every two years, In 2009, DoD accounted for half of the 30 areas, including eight areas that were specific to the Pentagon, and another seven governmentwide areas that involved DoD.
Since then, however, McGrath has been working to reform DoD business practices. She told an audience at an AFCEA Northern Virginia luncheon on Friday that she expected cards and flowers if a high-risk DoD area was indeed pronounced repaired.
Security clearances in particular have been the subject of reform efforts across government since Congress mandated changes in the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004. In 2007, the Bush administration set up a joint reform team made up of officials from DoD, the intelligence community and the administration to work on a plan to streamline and improve the clearance process. In December, GAO said in congressional testimony that the reforms had achieved significant progress, but maintaining the momentum would take committed executive leadership.
McGrath said security clearances are one area where her office has been focused on in its effort at re-engineering longstanding business practices at DoD.
“If you don’t understand how you execute your business, you can’t fix it,” she said. “We used Lean Six Sigma-I’m a greenbelt-we looked at the policies that existed. The policies were from back in the time of J. Edgar Hoover. I said, ‘you’ve got to be kidding me, how can that be?’ It’s because nobody asked. Nobody looked. Nobody challenged, we just did what we do. We just said, ‘we understand the process, it’s proven.’ It’s proven not to be very effective, but we used it.”
If security clearances do come off the list, DoD will certainly have others to continue work on. Also on the 2009 list were:
Weapon system acquisition
Supply chain management
Business systems modernization
Support infrastructure management
McGrath said all of the business areas have been getting a lot of attention.
“It’s one thought process that we’re applying to all of the business areas,” she said. “How do you do what you do, how do you know what you’re going, and what are you doing about it if it’s not satisfactory? What’s the root cause? Do you understand the cost of doing what you’re doing? It’s a much more traditional business focus within the business space at the department, which is a huge shift that I’ve experienced over the last couple of years.”
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