Waiting for Clearance
Background checks for more contract workers could tip the backlog.
Like Lucy furiously trying to keep up with the speeding conveyer belt in the chocolate factory, the Office of Personnel Management is struggling to keep up with security clearance investigations. And it's about to be flooded with at least 200,000 more.
A new addition to the Federal Acquisition Regulation requires the identities of contract and subcontract workers with access to federally controlled buildings and systems to be verified and checked against the FBI's criminal history records. While the requirement entails less work than a comprehensive security clearance, it will force agencies to process about 200,000 new cases annually, according to Kathy Dillaman, associate director of OPM's federal investigative services division, which handles 90 percent of all security clearance investigations for government agencies.
Industry groups fear that the rule change will overload the beleaguered system. "We're very concerned about what will happen once we begin to run all those people through the system," says Trey Hodgkins, director of defense programs at the Arlington, Va.-based industry group, Information Technology Association of America. He says OPM doesn't have the resources to handle its current workload and agencies lack funds to pay for more clearances. The Defense Department made headlines in late April when it stopped forwarding clearance requests to OPM because the Pentagon couldn't afford to get them processed.
Delays in clearances for contractors can put a wedge under the wheels of ongoing contracts. Stan Soloway, president of the Professional Services Council in Arlington, Va., says he's increasingly hearing from members who are facing contract delays over clearance holdups. In a letter to the General Services Administration, ITAA said the rule will add to the backlog because it "will add hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of new investigations."
Spawned from a 2004 Homeland Security presidential directive mandating a governmentwide standard for identification of federal employees and contractors, the new rule has caused a stir among agencies, too. During the public comment period, which ended in March, a property manager at GSA said it would be difficult to track subcontractors in addition to prime contractors. The Energy Department said the rule change "could result in substantial confusion" among federal employees and contractors over who is required to get background checks. The agency raised the question of whether a contractor who needs only temporary access to a federal building needs the clearance, for example.
While the debate over the new requirement continues, Dillaman is working to reduce the current backlog. She says the absorption of Defense's security clearance investigations into OPM in 2005 helped by consolidating systems. But those efficiencies have not fully compensated for the skyrocketing demand for clearances since Sept. 11. OPM now receives 1.6 million new requests a year, compared with 325,000 in 1996, says Dillaman. She estimates OPM has about 400,000 pending investigations, 100,000 of which have exceeded their deadlines.
OPM says it will speed up investigations so by the end of 2006, 80 percent of initial checks will be completed within 90 days-a requirement laid out in the 2004 National Intelligence Reform Act. "It's going to be ambitious," says Dillaman. Her plan is to automate more and hire more people, both federal employees and contractors. Her division, based at an undisclosed limestone mine in Pennsylvania, employs about 6,700 contractors and 1,600 federal employees across the country. In March, OPM released a new solicitation for investigative work.
The current contractors-CACI International Inc., Kroll Inc., ManTech International Corp., Omniplex World Services Corp., SA-Tech and USIS-also are beefing up staff directories. USIS, based in Falls Church, Va., has grown from 300 investigators before Sept. 11 to 2,800 today.
Jeffrey Schlanger, president of New York-based Kroll Government Services Inc., says he'd like to double his investigative forces to 2,000 from 1,000. "The difficulty is finding good people who are also cleared," says Julien Patterson, founder and president of Omniplex, which is based in Chantilly, Va. "Those who are cleared are able to name their price," he adds, which ultimately leads to higher contract costs for government.
Agencies and outside critics have pointed out that the demand for personnel with clearances puts a large burden on small businesses, which might not have the resources to hire cleared employees or to wait for them to be cleared. Robert White, spokesman for Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., says the congressman asked the Government Accountability Office to look at clearance delays, which White says have been longest for contractor employees. Davis is chairman of the House Government Reform Committee.
Clay Johnson, deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget, says if agencies submit initial clearance forms to OPM electronically, which now happens about half the time, it will shave weeks off the process and reduce errors. "That's the most important, tangible thing we've tried to accomplish," he says. OMB oversees the security clearance process.
Michael Arent, vice president for Defense Department programs for TechTeam Government Solutions Inc., an information technology company based in Chantilly, Va., tries to hire people who already have security clearances through active recruiting and bonuses for employees who refer qualified workers. It's sometimes easier, he says, for someone with a security clearance to learn the necessary technical skills than it is for someone with the skills to get a security clearance.