Federal security clearance process improves, officials say

OPM’s John Berry says he’s pleased with the progress the agency is making. OPM’s John Berry says he’s pleased with the progress the agency is making. Jennifer Trezza/Govexec.com

The federal government has improved the speed and efficiency of its security clearance process, but challenges remain with technology and collaboration, officials said on Tuesday.

Agency leaders reported progress in reducing the time it takes to conduct security clearances required for federal jobs during a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Oversight of Government Management Subcommittee hearing. The government processes nearly 900,000 cases annually, the majority of which are for Defense Department positions.

A Government Accountability Office audit released at the hearing found Defense required 325 days on average to complete initial personnel security clearances in 2007, but reduced processing time to 60 days in the first three quarters of fiscal 2010. The Office of Personnel Management, which conducts 90 percent of the government's background investigations, reduced its average completion time for initial security clearances from 153 days in fiscal 2007 to 47 days in fiscal 2010, according to agency data.

Officials also reported improvements in the efficiency of the clearance process. Both Defense and OPM have developed tools to track quality concerns, and the Performance Accountability Council, created in 2008 to refine the security clearance process, has developed metrics to evaluate agency performance, they said.

In spite of the progress, lawmakers questioned whether Defense and OPM have sufficient resources to roll out the information technology required to support the clearance process. Current IT capabilities are outdated and must be modernized in a timely manner, they said.

"IT in this process offers promise to increase efficiency, timeliness and quality all at once if indeed we manage these projects well," said Office of Management and Budget acting Director Jeffrey Zients, adding agencies have integrated the major clearance databases with improved search capabilities.

According to Director John Berry, during the next three years OPM will work to update all eight components of its IT infrastructure, including an electronic fingerprint tool and capabilities to collect background checks from state and local law enforcement. OPM has continued to charge agencies reasonable rates to conduct investigations while upgrading its system, and 98 percent of all submissions for processing are done electronically, he said.

"We feel we're making good progress," said Berry. "The fruit is being borne in the numbers that we're reaching, and we can do this within the budget. Any time we have a savings, the savings gets folded into the technology."

Elizabeth McGrath, deputy chief management officer at Defense, said the department's new IT infrastructure is scheduled to launch by the end of 2012. The upgrade will provide better access to information and documentation of adjudication decisions, she said.

Lawmakers also expressed concern that some agencies still are refusing to accept clearances granted by other agencies, which slows hiring for national security positions.

"The problem that we've had is some agencies just refuse to do it," said Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio. "We should just say if we have this type of clearance, it should be acceptable in your shop."

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said reciprocity rules have been issued to agencies and noted there are plans to develop a hot line that will allow people to report reciprocity incidents. Anecdotal data will help officials determine the extent of the problem, he added.

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