The background investigations backlog and wait times are down, but contractors still see hurdles in getting people cleared for sensitive work.
The government’s security clearance process has gone through significant changes in the last year, including moving from the Office of Personnel Management to the Defense Department’s newly renamed Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency and the early stages of implementing the new Trusted Workforce 2.0.
Despite this upheaval, the clearance arena has had some big wins, including paring down the massive background investigations backlog to a sustainable state. The government has whittled the backlog to 201,000 pending determinations—down from a high of 725,000 in 2018—and brought the time for granting initial secret-level clearances to 69 days and top secret to 140 days, a DCSA spokesperson told Nextgov Monday.
That morning, Reps. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., and Don Beyer, D-Va., held a roundtable with a range of federal contractors, most with business focused in the defense and intelligence sectors. The industry executives lauded DCSA for bringing the clearance backlog down to a sustainable state and being far more talkative and transparent with industry about the process.
However, the industry representatives offered some persistent pain points that continue to slow the process and create significant problems for the contracting community.
And these issues affect more than just the vendors’ bottom line.
Gregory Torres, director of personnel security at Booz Allen Hamilton, illustrated the issue at hand by recalling his own feelings about the process during his time in government. Torres previously served in several personnel security roles throughout the Defense Department, most recently as the Pentagon’s director of security for policy and oversight until March 2018. Prior to that, he served in several similar roles at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, the Defense Security Service—now DCSA—and with the Army, Navy and Marine Corps.
“Sitting in the spot of [the official] responsible for personnel security policy, I’d hear complaints from industry. But, unfortunately, the complaints I heard from industry were all focused around money. Industry was always saying, ‘Look, we’re not making profit; we have to terminate people and overhead.’ And as a government policy person responsible for security, I didn’t care,” he said.
Since moving to the private sector, Torres said he now sees these same issues in a different light.
Connolly agreed and noted this is a persistent misconception for agencies and Congress alike.
“That attitude adds costs to contracting because the business community is going to have to now hedge risk,” he said. “And the taxpayers are paying more because of that attitude.”
Torres suggested vendors talk about how these issues affect mission delivery rather than their own accounting, though the two are inextricably linked.
“Now that I’m out here, I’m encouraging folks when they talk to the government, talk about lost mission,” he said. “There’s an impact, certainly, financially for industry. But the bigger thing that government has to care about—besides the financial aspect—is, you’re supposed to have 100 people on this contract, you only got 50; that’s 50 people that are not working on government missions. I think—I think—that would have resonated more with me than industry just not making enough money.”
Two of the biggest roadblocks brought up Monday were adjudications—reauthorizing someone with an existing clearance for a new role—and reciprocity—getting one agency to accept the security determination of another.
With regard to adjudications, Torres cited long wait times for polygraphs as one example—wait times that don’t exist for newly initiated clearance requests.
“You can have somebody who is currently active duty in the Air Force, top secret/SCI clearance, sitting in a sensitive compartmentalized information facility today. We want to move that person into the intelligence community proper and send them, let’s say, to [the National Security Agency], but they don’t have a polygraph. The polygraph takes about a day—that’s how long a polygraph usually takes unless you have to go back. It takes 12-18 months for them just to execute a polygraph,” he said.
For comparison, Torres said NSA can do an entire initial investigation, including a polygraph within eight months. In those situations, the polygraph is wrapped into the process. However, if a previously cleared person needs a polygraph for a new role, they often have to wait a year or more because the government does not have enough polygraphers and there aren’t enough in the pipeline to fill demand.
“In the world of polygraph: there are not enough polygraphers and the school’s not big enough,” Torres said. “If they’re going to do polygraph, then they’re going to need to do it and do it in a timely fashion. They will need help with resources—dollars to build the school, build polygraphers, build that set.”
Connolly suggested this could be fixed relatively easily through the appropriations process. He asked Professional Services Council President and CEO David Berteau to compile a list of easy funding asks for House legislators to consider during deliberations on fiscal 2021 appropriations.
In a similar vein, industry representatives offered some other issues that could be fixed without excessive legislative overhauls. Torres and Jennie Brackens, personnel security manager for SAIC, cited the limited information available on current security holders as a roadblock to reciprocity, and one that could be resolved relatively easily.
They pointed to the Scattered Castles database that holds current security clearance information on individuals. Unfortunately, most users don’t have access to enough information to make the database useful.
“We need higher visibility into those systems,” Brackens said. “We did at one time, and getting highly cleared personnel access to those will help us present and put people forward who won’t be problematic.”
Torres interjected with a highly specific request: Level 10 access for cleared personnel security officials in industry.
“The government says, ‘Give us the person that has a good investigation, a good polygraph, and they’re in scope and there’s no exception.’ We can’t see that,” he said. “Since they don’t let us see that, we give them somebody, they then fail us on our security volume and say, ‘You failed the criteria, go try again.’ So, the person we’ve now made an offer to, we now have to say, ‘Never mind, we didn’t know,’ and now we have to go try to hire somebody else.”
“If you’re looking for easy solutions … that’s one of them,” Brackens said.
Torres, reaching back to his previous experience inside the process, said government officials are concerned that if industry gets that access, hiring officials will “troll the database” looking for cleared federal employees to poach.
Beyond industry access issues, Torres pointed out that agencies within government can’t get proper access, either.
“What they say is, ‘This person was an exception at [the Defense Intelligence Agency],’ so NGA says, ‘I need to order a copy of the original investigation, wait for that to come to us in the mail so that I can read the investigation. Why is it that every intelligence agency cannot log in to the other intelligence agency’s system, read what the issue was, read what the concern was and make a decision with that. They could do that today with a stroke of a pen, with a username and password.”
With such a modification, “They’d be able to make decisions in minutes rather than weeks,” Torres said.
Another issue with a potentially easy fix was locality requirements.
“Even after employees are cleared and are able to perform the work, there are often requirements that say work must be performed within a certain distance—geographic distance—from a customer location,” said Paul Engola, chief human resources officer and head of business partnerships at Leidos. “Many of us have dispersed resources—geographically dispersed resources—across the country, and there are pieces of work that we could compartment and disperse elsewhere, allowing us to tap into an even larger talent pool.”
Norton agreed, noting such requirements are likely leftover from a time before technology had progressed to the point where telework options were viable. She and Connolly both agreed locality requirements should be eased as the government moves toward Trusted Workforce 2.0.
“There are some jobs that, I think, are enhanced by proximity to the customer. But there are other jobs that don’t require proximity at all,” Connolly said. “Instead of that being a routine requirement, how about you have to opt-in? You have to prove as the client—as the federal agency—why that requirement is necessary. Otherwise, we’re going to assume there is no geographic requirement.”