Security Clearance Backlog Has Been a Decade in the Making

There’s no shortage of recommendations for addressing the problems.

The government is good at self-reflection. Positive action is a little more difficult.

A Government Accountability Office report released earlier this week offers a case in point. The report reviews the Personnel Security Program, the status of the clearance backlog, and changes in the clearance process from 2012 to 2016. Its first appendix may provide the biggest nugget into how we arrived at the problems we see today. Since May 2009, GAO has made 37 recommendations to agencies for improving the personnel security process. As of November 2017, agencies had implemented 12 of them.

Obviously, not every recommendation, even from GAO, may be appropriate. But the fact that the personnel security program is bogged down in delays and backlogs (again) makes it clear there is a need for reform, and agencies are falling short.

The National Background Investigations Bureau has taken steps to improve the personnel security process, but GAO noted it faces operational challenges that affect its ability to increase the number of investigators doing the work and reduce the backlog.

A Problem With Consequences

The current backlog and 459 day average wait time for a top secret security clearance (as of 2016) aren’t victimless issues—they’re matters of national security and financial responsibility.

“Problems related to backlogs and the resulting delays in determining clearance eligibility and issuing initial clearances can result in millions of dollars of additional costs to the federal government, longer periods of time needed to complete national security related contracts, lost opportunity costs if prospective employees decide to work elsewhere rather than wait to get a clearance, and diminishing quality of the work because industrial contractors may be performing government contracts with personnel who have the necessary security clearances but are not the most experienced and best-qualified personnel for the positions involved,” the report warns.

NBIB has been working to address the backlog, but it’s trying to improve business processes while attracting and retaining a quality workforce—all without a clear strategic plan to address those personnel challenges, according to GAO. NBIB had a vacancy rate of about 17 percent in its field operations department as of July 2017. That includes the federal investigator staff. NBIB assumes it will have 277 vacancies within its federal investigator workforce at any given time, due to high attrition rates. The bureau’s inability to retain skilled workers means it’s unable to project workforce figures past April 2018.

Where NBIB has seen some progress is with reengineering its business processes to emphasize quality and completeness. A business process evaluation identified 57 challenges within the personnel security process. The bureau developed automation and digitization initiatives to improve the quality of information it receives at the start of the investigation process, which will reduce the investigation level of effort required to correct erroneous data.

A common criticism of NBIB is that it is simply the former Federal Investigative Service by another name. GAO noted some of the differences though:  NBIB created four new departments that didn’t exist under FIS, dedicated to improving the contracting process, IT management, and the collection of records from state and local law enforcement offices. A Field Contracts Division was also established to oversee the contract workforce. Contractors perform approximately 60 percent of NBIB’s background investigations work, according to the report, and since 2014 federal employees have reviewed all background investigation reports produced by contractors. The quality reviews are helping to increase the quality of investigations, the report indicates. The percentage of cases conducted by contractors that require additional work after submission decreased from 6 percent in 2014 to 3.2 percent in 2014.

A History of Reform

The crux of the GAO report is that the current backlog and processing delays aren’t an NBIB problem, or a workforce problem—they’re a systemic problem. The fever pitch of reform interest has been quantified in congressional hearings, interagency reviews, and policy recommendations. Those recommendations have rarely, if ever, translated to actual reform.

  • In response to the September 2013 shooting at the Washington Navy Yard, the Presidential Advisory Committee conducted a 120-day interagency review to assess risks in the security clearance process. A February 2014 report made 37 recommendations to improve the clearance process, data sharing, and reporting. Only 12 of those recommendations have been made.
  • In March 2014, the Office of Management and Budget established Insider Threat and Security Clearance Reform as a cross agency priority goal. Agencies were to work together to ensure investigations and adjudications meet governmentwide standards.
  • In response to the Office of Personnel Management data breach, in 2015 the PAC conducted a second 90-day review of the government security clearance process. The resulting report recommended four actions to improve the background investigations process and infrastructure. It also recommended the creation of the NBIB and the Defense Department’s role in overseeing personnel security IT systems.
  • In 2012, updated Federal Investigative Standards were approved. Security Executive Agent Directive 4 and its updated adjudicative criteria weren’t implemented until June 2017. From initial proposal to implementation, this relatively minor change in the adjudicative criteria took nearly 10 years.

The Latest Recommendations

The latest iteration of the GAO’s efforts to make improvements to the security clearance process resulted in six recommendations, three for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and three for NBIB. ODNI recommendations focused on creating quality performance measures across all government agencies and updating security clearance processing timeline goals to reflect current realities and objectives. Recommendations for the NBIB included developing a plan to evaluate the effect its business process changes will have on reducing the backlog, along with creating a strategic workforce plan and increasing investigative capacity.

The problems with the current personnel security process have been a decade in the making. While it’s easy to look at the years-long delays and 700,00 case backlog and wonder how we got here, the GAO report makes it clear: Today’s delays were born or amplified through yesterday’s policy problems.

Lindy Kyzer is the editor of and a former Defense Department employee.