Industry seeks easy fixes to lengthy, redundant vetting process for DHS contractors

Industry is pushing members of Congress to help the Homeland Security Department address a series of major roadblocks that companies have with the agency’s long, confusing and redundant process for vetting contractor personnel.

Most members of industry and Congress agree: the governmentwide security clearance process, which recently made its way back on the Government Accountability Office’s biennial High-Risk List, has its many challenges.

But the least DHS could do, industry said, is standardize and simplify the requirements it uses to determine whether contracting personnel are fit to work on behalf of the agency.

“We want them standardized,” Marc Pearl, president and CEO of the Homeland Security and Defense Business Council, said Tuesday at a hearing on the DHS vetting process. “We want to understand a sense of consistency. Drugs is one example. Some agencies don’t care. Some agencies may [limit] within the last three years or within the last 10 years. That’s not necessarily just a security clearance uniform approach. Different components approach that question [differently]. They approach bad debt differently. Some don’t even allow the asking of the question. Some set it at $3,000 or $5,000 or $10,000.”

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DHS leadership can — and should — agree to common suitability standards across the department, industry members said.

“Does the secretary have a magic wand? Or do we need legislation to move this forward?” House Homeland Security Oversight and Management Efficiency Subcommittee Ranking Member Luis Correa (D-Calif.) asked.

Several industry associations said they didn’t see any regulatory or statutory barriers that would prevent the DHS secretary from issuing and enforcing uniform fitness standards to vet contractor personnel across all 22 component agencies.

Determining which individuals agencies should trust with their work is an important decision, said David Berteau, president and CEO of the Professional Services Council. But it’s not one that should take months.

“You minimize risk by taking forever to do it,” he said. “If you never say yes, then you’re never in trouble for having said yes to the wrong person. The secretary and the officials underneath the secretary need to provide the coverage that says, it’s OK to make a decision.”

There are several problems with the current DHS system, members of industry said. The challenges have been building over the Homeland Security Department’s short history, and many aren’t necessarily particular to DHS.

First, each component has its own personnel security clearance office with different procedures, adjudicators and standards to determine what’s acceptable.

For example, a contractor who received a favorable fitness assessment from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) can’t simply pick up and move to new work for another DHS component like Customs and Border Protection. CBP may often use its own standards to determine suitability, and the same contractor may be asked to start the suitability assessment process over again to start work on a new task order.

Contractors are often unclear about how each DHS component applies those fitness standards for each position, meaning they have little insight into whether the employees they designate meet the component’s needs. The line of communication between industry and DHS subcomponents about this process is lengthy and confusing.

Companies typically wait anywhere from three-to-15 months for their employees to receive a fitness determination, members of industry said, and DHS provides no status update on those suitability ratings.

“Even if you have a process that is broken, even if you have a process where things are going on for a long time, at least communicate with the contractor,” Pearl said. “At least … stay in touch. Check in. Give them that information.”

The uncertainty recruiting and retaining top talent is difficult for companies, who are often forced to offer prospective candidates conditional offers of employment for a single position multiple times, Pearl said.  HSDBC member companies often build extra time and costs  to hire multiple people in their rates and pricing models before their customer agencies, he added.

All of these differences are illogical and counterproductive — for both the contractor and the agency, said Charles Allen, a senior intelligence adviser for the Intelligence and National Security Alliance (INSA) and former undersecretary of intelligence and analysis for DHS.

“One of the reasons we like to use contractors is because of the flexibility that contracting provides you,” Berteau said. “Once you have a government career civil servant, that’s the job they’re in. With contractors, you at least theoretically, you have the ability to move to where the need is and to be able to go back and forth. The department is actually working against its own interest by making it more difficult to do that.”

The department is only 15-years old, and like many aspects of DHS, its components are still learning how they can unite under one agency mission.

The lack of uniform suitability standards is one piece that DHS can address on its own. But the department alone can’t address every single challenge facing the governmentwide vetting and security clearance process, Berteau said.

But Berteau and other industry leaders said DHS leadership can facilitate some of the tough conversations the department’s already facilitated with its components about procurement.

“We need to recognize that every day, there are thousands of people who get up in the Department of Homeland Security and come to work and do the absolute best they can,” Berteau said. “Some of those people are on the government payroll, some of those people work for contractors. They do their best to get their jobs done. They deserve a better system.”

Members of the House Homeland Security subcommittee were baffled by DHS’ lack of communication and confusion. Other agencies, like the Defense Department, have a better handle on contractor suitability.

“If somebody can do it, everybody can do it,” subcommittee Chairman Scott Perry (R-Pa.) said. “You have to want to do it, though.”