An automated system to streamline security clearances and background checks for federal workers will be up and running by June, the Office of Personnel Management said Monday.
When complete, the e-clearance system will allow federal employees to update online the government form for national security positions. The online filing system will save workers time because it will let them use a two-page form-the SF-86C-to renew their applications, instead of a 13-page form every time their situation changes.
The SF-86C form has been designed, approved and is available for workers to use, but they cannot file the form electronically yet. Technology known as e-QIP, which is in its final testing phase, will make electronic filing possible. E-QIP will be ready for governmentwide use by June, according to Dan Blair, deputy director of OPM.
E-clearance, one of the 24 e-government initiatives supported by the president's management agenda, also includes the Clearance Verification System, which will allow agencies to access the results of background investigations or view clearance forms by searching in a single database.
Until recently, most civilian agencies tracked employees' clearance histories in separate databases, said Norm Enger, project manager for human resources-related electronic government projects at OPM. The office is working on transferring all of those files into a single database. About 80 percent of the files have already been transferred and those remaining should be in the database by the summer, he said.
The complete database of civilian clearance histories will connect to the Defense Department's Joint Personnel Adjudication System, so that for the first time, one search will pull up investigative and clearance information for both civilian and defense employees.
Digital images of investigative files will also be available under the e-clearance system. This is a daunting task, but will allow OPM to process its annual workload of about 2 million new background investigations more efficiently, Enger said. The technology for the imaging will be in place by June, but the actual imaging process will go on indefinitely as new investigation files arrive. The old files will remain on paper.
"It would be difficult to overstate the importance of e-clearance," said OPM Director Kay Coles James in a statement marking the system's official kickoff. "With threats to our homeland and to our national interests overseas, providing accurate, thorough, and timely clearances to the workforce is crucial."
OPM estimates that the e-clearance system will save taxpayers more than $258 million over the next 10 years, as the new system will process forms in one-tenth of the time currently needed. Workers who have to file clearance forms, some as frequently as every few months, will also save time using the shortened SF-86C form.
Officials did not have cost estimates for the new system readily available, but said that OPM's background investigations unit would foot less than $10 million of the bill for the project. Officials could not estimate the cost of the digital imaging component of the project because OPM has not yet purchased the equipment needed to create the images.
The new Homeland Security Department looks forward to using the new e-clearance technology, according to Ann Tursic, chief of the department's personnel security division. She said she sees the system as a "smart way of doing business." Homeland Security has already started using the new SF-86C form to allow workers entering the department to reapply for clearances without going through the hassle of filling out an entire SF-86 form, she said.
Contractors are also happy to see the new system deployed, OPM officials said. The shortened SF-86C clearance renewal forms will save contractors time when their employees switch contracts, requiring them to complete new forms. Peter Grau, a special security officer for Lockheed Martin Data and Management Services, said e-clearance will be a huge benefit to industry, especially in the long run. "It's something that many of us thought was long overdue," he said.