A security clearance backlog that built and persisted through the last decade is now completely gone, according to Defense officials, but more work remains to be done to speed up the process of issuing clearances and reducing the program’s costs.
The backlog of security clearance applications—those which had been pending for more than a year—was more than 133,000 cases deep in 2005, according to the Office of Personnel Management, which is now responsible for the background investigation portion of the security clearance process under a 2004 reform.
The growth in the backlog was so worrisome at the time that the Government Accountability Office put DoD’s security clearance program on its list of high risk areas of government in its 2005 update. Earlier this year, GAO took the issue off its list, making it the first DoD item ever to be removed. Beth McGrath, the Pentagon’s deputy chief management officer (DCMO), said the department achieved its goal by doggedly pursuing the issue by creating a team that examined the security clearance process from top to bottom in order to figure out why things were taking so long.
“We essentially locked everybody in a room for three months and we didn’t come out until we were done documenting the process we had been using,” she said at a Government Executive panel discussion in Arlington, Va. Tuesday.
She said that strategy turned out to be a better approach than adding more money and personnel to the process, an approach she said tends not to solve problems, within DoD, at least not in a sustainable way.
What did work, she said, were changes in technology and business processes, including big decisions on precisely who should get a security clearance. McGrath indicated there were reasonable questions around whether everyone who has received a clearance through DoD’s adjudication process truly needs one in order to perform his or her job.
“We really are trying to right-size the number [of clearances] , and that’s a tough one in DoD,” she said. “We are so accustomed to having at least a secret clearance that it’s almost a bad mark if you don’t have one, because our culture drives us that way. But in the federal space, for example, in (the Department of Veterans Affairs), very few of their personnel have clearances. They don’t need them. They’re in high public trust positions, so we want to do the proper vetting, but they don’t need a clearance for that. I think this is an area that is ripe for more attention.”
With the clearance backlog out of the way, McGrath said the average processing time for clearances is 47 days, down from 165 days in 2006. And only nine of those days, on average, are taken up by the actual adjudication processes performed by DoD’s various reviewing agencies.
Nonetheless, she said DoD and the other parts of government responsible for clearances still are working on changes to bring the time and cost down. This includes additional changes to the federal investigative standards to incorporate more technology that could circumvent time-consuming hands-on review of applications.
“We’re trying to collect the information once, to make either a hiring decision or a determination for a security clearance,” she said. “We can’t tell the difference sometimes between a hiring decision and what’s holding up a security clearance. We’re trying to move those two decisions much closer together, because 90 percent plus of the information is the same.”
The review team also developed a way for DoD to receive its cases electronically from OPM, she said. As recently as two years ago, DoD still was getting those files on paper: either trucked in or FedEx-ed, which added more time and cost to the process.
All of DoD’s clearance adjudication facilities also now are using a single online software system, CATS, which was first piloted by the Army before being spread throughout the department.
“Each of [the adjudication agencies] had their own software solutions,” McGrath said. “We don’t need four or five. Adjudications are adjudications. Frankly, with the BRAC co-locations of our adjudication facilities, it made even more sense to bring them onto a common technology solution.”
That system also brought more automation to the adjudication process, keeping clearance decisions from having to be manually reviewed when they don’t need to be.
“Out of the 600,000 secret cases we do each year, so many of them really have no issues,” she said. “Yet, we have people looking at every case. Instead of that we decided to ask how technology could help here. We wrote business rules, and the computer can now just say ‘I see no issues on this one’ and just send it.”
McGrath’s office is using the same strategies it applied to the security clearance process to reform other areas of DoD’s business practices.
The general idea is to take duties that have traditionally been handled one-by-one in various functional areas of DoD, each with their own procedures and systems, and merge them into the context of what DCMO planning documents call “end-to-end business processes.”
There are 15 areas the department will focus on, including end-to-end processes they’re calling “procure-to-pay” and “hire-to-retire.”
Dave Wennergren, DoD’s assistant deputy chief management officer and McGrath’s second-in-command, said the teams that will design those processes will come from different functional areas across DoD and will end up fundamentally reshaping the way the Pentagon handles its back office operations.
“This team approach is so crucially important,” he said. “It breaks the shackles of the current stovepipes we have right now. We have got to think differently. We have each become so enamored of our own system that it becomes our baby, and we love it. It’s hard to have somebody explain to you that maybe your baby’s ugly.”
Wennergren added addressing back off functions is more important than ever as financial pressures come down on DoD. “If you’re not asking questions about ‘how much does it cost and why does it cost that much’, and the corollary, ‘why do I do it the way I’ve always done it’, we’ve just become enamored with the way it was, rather than the way it should be,” he said.
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