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Fixing The Security Clearance Process Has Not Been Forgotten

While security clearance topics might not be making headlines, the process – and how to improve it – remains a priority across government.

The great disruption of a global pandemic hit every industry – but the national security workforce was largely inoculated from the largest setbacks. Many trends emerging in the cleared workforce today are less about COVID-19, and more about the implementation of aspects of Trusted Workforce 2.0 – which is helping to improve clearance processing times, insure a more accurate and ongoing clearance investigation, and help make it easier for individuals to transition in and out of government and between government agencies. 

Key aspects of Trusted Workforce 2.0 are still a twinkle in the eye of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Others await the technological advancements that will be made possible through full implementation of the National Background Investigation Services. 

Security clearance reform hasn’t found itself in the congressional hot seat recently, but the governmentwide personnel security process remains on the Government Accountability Office (GAO) high-risk list, and an upcoming forum hosted by the Intelligence and National Security Alliance will bring together legislators, policy makers and industry experts to discuss the path forward on personnel security. 

These are indications that while security clearance topics might not be making headlines, the process – and how to improve it – remains a priority across government. Here are some hot topics guiding the process today.

There’s A Limited Cleared Talent Pool

For years the security clearance process faced scrutiny for failure to meet investigation timelines. The Office of Personnel Management hack and Edward Snowden leaks ushered in new issues as background investigators left the workforce and the backlog of pending investigations soared to more than 700,000 cases. Major progress in security clearance timelines have occurred in the past two years, with average clearance processing times for the Department of Defense now 181 days for a Top Secret clearance and 112 days for a Secret clearance, for the fastest 90% of applicants. 

While progress has been made on processing times, the pool of available talent remains limited, and defense and hiring managers in the national security space still call it a candidate’s market. Even with clearance investigations moving faster, the overall number of individuals with a clearance has remained relatively static, and is a full million less than the 5.1 million individuals who held a security clearance in 2013 – pre-Snowden and before the Office of the Director of National Intelligence called for desk audits to ensure only those with a direct need to access classified information were cleared.

It’s now easier for employers to get new individuals through the clearance process in a somewhat timely fashion, but just like outside factors cause inflation to keep rising, outside factors hitting the cleared industry create a complex cleared marketplace. Last year ushered in a new wave of federal employees leaving the government, with retirement figures up 14% in 2021. A strong commercial sector and overall high demand for talent presents unique challenges for those looking to hire and retain into national security careers.

Smooth And Fast And Continuous Vetting

The past year also ushered in major milestones for Trusted Workforce 2.0, with the DoD reaching full enrollment into its continuous vetting program, which consists of ongoing automated records checks versus the traditional episodic periodic reinvestigation. To date, 75% of all security clearance holders across government are enrolled in continuous vetting. 

“Once an individual has been investigated and adjudicated, then they are automatically enrolled in continuous vetting,” said Heather Green, director of the Vetting Risk Operations Center, DCSA, when announcing the program milestone in October. “Policymakers have worked really hard to design what that reformed personnel vetting policy should be. One of the central components of that is vetting…Trusted Workforce 2.0 was really a holistic, whole of government personnel security reform effort that is involved in overhauling the vetting process.”

Fully implemented, the desire is for continuous vetting to make transferring trust or clearance eligibility across government easier. The enterprise-level continuous evaluation process is designed to ensure that alerts or issues that come up are addressed and reported.

Critical to all of this is technology, and DCSA’s National Background Investigation Services (NBIS), a major technological overhaul that will replace the legacy OPM system the agency inherited – and a very piecemeal, paper-driven security clearance system.

With the continued need to increase the number of new applicants pursuing government careers, the implementation of NBIS will be key – in part because it will enable DCSA to finally release its overhauled application process, eApp. The updated online SF-86 has been in the works for years, but has yet to reach implementation beyond a few pilot programs.

Slow and steady may have seemed the mantra of personnel security reform over the past several years: slow and steady improvements to clearance processing times, managing incremental change to policy and process. The future of personnel security will need to ensure slow and steady also includes smooth and fast, with updated systems that can support an application system fit for the 21st century.