Congressman floats 'FITARA-like' scorecard to measure security clearance process

A significant reduction in the backlog of security clearance investigations over the past two years has contractors feeling more optimistic, but concerns about lengthy adjudications and reciprocity between federal agencies still linger.

Shutterstock photo id 669226093 By Gorodenkoff

A significant reduction in the backlog of security clearance investigations over the past two years has contractors feeling more optimistic, but concerns about lengthy adjudications and reciprocity between federal agencies still linger.

According to testimony from National Counterintelligence and Security Center Director William Evanina, the government's backlog has dwindled from 725,000 cases in 2018 to approximately 231,000 as of January 2020. Evanina has cited increased focus on speeding up Secret and Top Secret investigations. The Department of Defense, which took over responsibility for background investigations last year from the Office of Personnel Management, has also said an increase in the use of automation and continuous vetting has also helped clear the logjam.

At a Feb. 24 roundtable discussion hosted by George Mason University, Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va,) said he and other members of House Oversight's Government Operations Subcommittee were initially "dubious," thinking the shift from OPM could result in DOD prioritizing its own personnel over other feds and contractors. David Berteau, president of the Professional Services Council, an industry group representing more than 400 large and small contractors, said the change is "off to a good start" in that regard.

"I would say in the initial stages that we've seen here, we are not hearing from the other federal agencies that they're being [shortchanged]" by the move, Berteau said.

While Berteau expressed optimism about the long-term prospects of the move, he and others consistently flagged outstanding problems with the way clearances are adjudicated, arguing many agencies simply do not dedicate enough staff to handle current workloads in a timely manner.

A number of contractors talked of challenges caused by the delays, from potential new hires who don't want to be sidelined while they wait for the government to clear them to vendors fighting with each other to recruit and poach from the same small pool of already-cleared workers. The delays could be particularly severe for smaller contractors, where profit margins are tighter and employers lack the capital to hire and pay someone while they're waiting to be cleared.

"As a small business, I don't have the deep pockets that the larger organizations have to be able to place a person on the bench for a year and a half, waiting for their security clearance to be processed," said Kevin Manuel-Scott, CEO of RONIN Information Technology Services. "I can't do that. I can't hold them for two months, I can't hold them for two weeks."

Even if they have the financial resources to do so, companies aren't allowed to build a bench of pre-cleared employees for future contracts in certain areas, like national security work.

"If you have a very high talent and your business is … getting more into the intelligence community sector, you cannot simply clear people for the sake of having clearances," said Jennie Brackens of SAIC. "You have to have a contractual need, there has to be an established … contract or similar specifications."

Others flagged longstanding reluctance on the part of many agencies to reciprocally accept clearances approved by other agencies, despite a years-long push by Congress and policymakers to do so. While many agencies have developed policies that openly support the concept of clearance reciprocity, contactors say they often come with substantial carve outs that give those agencies wide latitude to reject or reinvestigate a candidate.

"It's just crazy that you can be OK with the State Department and OK with the CIA and not get a job [with another agency], said Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.).

Following the roundtable, Connolly told FCW that his committee wants to see "reasonable uniform standards" for agencies to better handle both issues, and that moving away from "whimsical" and "capricious" rules for each agency could also reduce the likelihood of security lapses.

"Having a high uniform standard gives us a running chance at protecting the assets better than the system of being all over the line," Connolly said.

He also said his subcommittee would look to hold hearings in the coming months on how agencies were adapting to the new clearance regime, floating the possibility of scoring agencies' performance and improvement similar to House Oversight's "FITARA Scorecard" hearings.

"That's actually been a tool for modernizing government and keeping the pressure on and supporting people who are reform agents within government, knowing we have their backs and are going to be prodding their bosses to go along with their reforms," said Connolly. "So maybe we come up with something like that on this subject, I don't know yet."