Details emerge about new security clearance organization, processes

In less than two weeks, the Office of Personnel Management is expected to launch the new background investigation service to help fix the mess created by a series of incidents ranging from a lack of contractor oversight to the massive data breach affecting 21.5 million current and former federal employees.

Officials promise the National Background Investigations Bureau (NBIB) will be a much different organization than its predecessor, the Federal Investigative Services.

“It will have a politically appointed director, will be headquartered in D.C. and be a full member of the Performance Accountability Council, so it aligns with customers for increased accountability and formulation of policy. That is key,” said Jim Onusko, transition leader of the NBIB, during the INSA-AFCEA National Security Summit. “With the NBIB transition team, nothing is done in a vacuum. We work closely with the transition advisory group, including the Defense Department, the Director of National Intelligence, the Office of Management and Budget and other federal agencies. In addition, we’ve created eight new key functions for the NBIB to transform how the government performs background investigations. In addition to those eight new key functions, we also enhanced seven legacy functions to more effectively and efficiently perform those investigations.”

Onusko said one key new function is the creation of a Senior Executive Service (SES) position to lead the Federal Investigative Records Enterprise (FIRE). This person’s charge will be to automate and digitize the NBIB’s processes.

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OPM offered more details on the NBIB in a Sept. 2 letter to Sens. John Tester (D-Mont.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.). Tester and McCaskill wrote to OPM asking for an update on the NBIB on Aug. 23.

In the letter, OPM provided more specifics around the makeup of the NBIB. For example, along with the FIRE directorate, the NBIB also will include an Engagements and Customer Service office, which will include a newly established law enforcement liaison to promote and augment the exchange of vital electronic records, and a Business Transformation directorate, which will focus on data-driven decisions and policies to support strategic goals.

Several other interesting details emerged such as the NBIB will have 8,500 employees, including 3,000 feds and 5,500 contractors. OPM said it hired 400 new federal investigators in fiscal 2016 and plans to add another 200 in 2017.

OPM also recently awarded a contract to four vendors to support the work of federal investigators to do background investigations and begin addressing the backlog of cases.

Currently, Onusko said the backlog of security clearance cases is more than 500,000.

OPM told the senators that “secret cases are taking 105 days to complete and initial top secret cases are taking 214 days.”

Under the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, Congress mandated OPM complete 90 percent of all initial security clearance investigations in 40 days and the 90 percent of the initial top secret investigations in 80 days.

“FIS is also undergoing a business process re-engineering effort, which includes identification of continuous process improvements that may also ultimately result in investigative capacity and process efficiencies,” OPM stated in the letter. “The BPR team has met with the largest investigations stakeholders to explore ‘pain points’ and identify targets for process improvements. For example, improved automation in front-end investigations processing produces benefits throughout the investigation review, closing and delivery process. The BPR results will help generate requirements to inform DoD on the development of a next generation case management system for the NBIB.”

Onusko said there is no quick fix to reducing the time it takes to complete an investigation or the backlog. But OPM continues to look at a broad range of solutions, including working with customer agencies to optimize access to federal employees who need new or renewed investigations. OPM also hired back retired investigators and offered current ones overtime pay.

OPM offered few new details on DoD’s progress or efforts to develop the NBIB’s IT infrastructure.

The agency stated it would make some short term IT improvements based on its Digital Transformation Strategy.

“The initial phase of this plan is to enhance existing legacy systems currently hosted by OPM to address new critical functional, user and security requirements,” OPM stated. “Concurrently, OPM and DoD, in partnership with GSA’s 18F team, has launched a project to modernize the eApplication process and associated systems. The prototype of this modernized system is targeted for first quarter of 2017.”

Part of that work with 18F is refreshing the Electronic Questionnaires for Investigations Processing system (e-QIP). 18F issued a solicitation Sept. 6 through its agile development blanket purchase agreement to replace the 13-year-old system. OPM and 18F wants a contractor to build a front-end software application prototype of the e-QIP system using a modern technology stack, digitizing Standard Form 86 and importing existing data through an API. Bids are due Sept. 20.

OPM also expects the cost of security clearance investigations to rise in 2017 and 2018. Onusko said the 2017 pricing schedule for security clearance should be finalized later in September.

“Amongst other business process improvements NBIB will be able to deliver to its customers, in the future, NBIB expects to be able to better align pricing with the federal budget timeline,” OPM stated in the letter. “This initiative was developed as a result of structured engagements with customer agencies and is supported by a study done by DoD’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) organization in concert with OPM and key stakeholders.”

A spokesman for Tester said the senator “still has some very strong concerns about the National Background Investigations Bureau. Until he is able to meet with the bureau’s permanent director and get more specific answers about the ‘new’ entity, he remains skeptical that the NBIB will be capable of properly vetting folks who want access to our nation’s most sensitive information and locations.”

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