Berry: OPM is ahead of schedule on security clearance reforms
OPM Director John Berry told lawmakers on a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee he was optimistic government will meet a 2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act mandate to reduce the average processing time for security clearance applications to 60 days by the end of 2009 for 90 percent of all cases.
"I am very proud to come before you and report, we are ahead of schedule," said Berry, during a hearing of the subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, the Federal Workforce and the District of Columbia.
Berry said OPM has eliminated a backlog in cases referred from other agencies for background investigations, and cut the time required for investigations significantly since 2007. That year, initial investigations took an average of 115 days in 90 percent of cases; by the second quarter of 2009 the average time was 42 days.
A more centralized computer database of cases, methods of automatically deciding cases without red flags and other reforms helped streamline the process, according to Berry.
Jeffrey Zients, deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget, said a new Standard Form 86, used to investigate applicants in national security positions, would be available for public comment by the end of September. The form has taken longer than anticipated to roll out because the Obama administration was concerned it oversimplified necessary levels of security, he said.
Berry and Zients said continued emphasis on transparency and consistency would increase reciprocity of clearances, so agencies could rely on and trust investigations completed for other agencies.
A GAO witnesses noted that despite these improvements, the Defense Department's security clearance process remains a high risk to the government. While the Pentagon has made progress on speed, more attention must be paid to the quality of investigations, said Brenda Farrell, director of defense capabilities and management at GAO. "Timeliness alone does not provide a complete picture of the security clearance process," she said.
Citing past GAO reports and a newly released update, Farrell chided OPM and other agencies for failing to report information about all security clearance applications -- as opposed to the fastest 90 percent -- and said government could benefit from a better roadmap for reform. She also noted a previous report that found many investigations had been closed despite incomplete information about the applicants.
Berry vowed that by the end of 2010 the issue would be removed from GAO's list of federal initiatives and programs at high risk of management problems. "We're not at the goal line yet, but we're within 10 yards," he said.
Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio -- who plans to retire in 2011 and said he wants to see the issue resolved before he leaves -- expressed frustration at the beginning of the hearing that it was taking so long to improve the clearance process.
"I see little evidence of progress thus far, in furtherance of these security clearance reform mandates," Voinovich said. "This is serious business."