Security clearance reciprocity, adjudication timeliness and leveraging technology to increase efficiency were all topics addressed at this week’s Security Clearance Reform hearing on Capitol Hill. Senator Daniel Akaka, Chairman of the Senate’s subcommittee on oversight of government management and the federal workforce, questioned a panel of government leaders on the progress of clearance reforms.
The general consensus was that much progress has been made over the course of the past several years, in moving the security clearance process off of the GAO hot seat and into a position to be, in some ways, a model for similar reform efforts in standardizing government processes. But despite the forward movement, much remains to be done, specifically in the area of reciprocity and communication across agencies.
The Performance Accountability Council (PAC) is responsible for many of the clearance reforms today’s applicants will note, including updating the security clearance application (SF-86) and instituting quality metrics. Today, initial investigations take an average of 44 days, compared to 189 days in 2005, noted Akaka.
Remarks from Gene Dodoro, comptroller general at the U.S. Government Accountability Office, emphasized the progress in security clearance reform as indicated by the removal of the program from the GAO’s high-risk list. Despite forward movement, however, he also emphasized that continued leadership emphasis and public attention would be needed to ensure reform efforts continue.
Dodoro specifically noted the need to reduce redundancy, leverage technology, and conduct an honest assessment of which positions require clearances and what level of clearance is required. “There’s a huge difference in the amount of money that’s used to implement a top secret versus a secret clearance,” Dodoro said.
“For fiscal year 2012 OPM’s standard base prices are $4,005 for an initial investigation of a top secret clearance, $2,711 for an investigation to renew a top secret clearance, and either $228 or $260 for an investigation for a secret clearance. As we reported in February 2012, these base prices can increase if triggered by the circumstances of a case, such as issues related to credit or criminal history checks,” noted Dodoro’s testimony. “Further, the cost of getting and maintaining a top secret clearance for 10 years is almost 30 times greater than the cost of getting and maintaining a secret clearance for the same period.”
Dodoro urged that requesting a lower level clearance when a higher one isn’t needed, as well as evaluating continued need for higher level clearances during periodic reinvestigations would likely result in significant savings for the federal government.
Other testimony largely focused on the issue of reciprocity, and leveraging technology to facilitate timely adjudication for personnel, which is deemed both critical to safeguarding classified materials as well as ensuring a quality workforce.
“A timely process is important because delays in processing security clearances can cause delays in placing qualified individuals in the cleared positions that are needed to accomplish our many missions,” said Elizabeth McGrath, deputy chief management officer, U.S. Department of Defense. “In some cases delays may result in highly qualified applicants withdrawing themselves from consideration for positions and the government losing out on these potential key contributors to our workforce.”
When it comes to clearance reciprocity, McGrath made the case for DoD’s Case Adjudication Tracking System (CATS), initially developed by the Army and now in use across the Department of Defense as well as the Department of Energy. McGrath noted that the Social Security administration was set to deploy cats in FY 2013. The CATS e-adjudication capability as greatly reduced the amount of manual processing required, said McGrath.
Merton Miller, associate director of the federal investigative service of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) noted that Electronic Questionnaires for Security Clearance Processing (eQIP) is the “gold standard” for electronic application throughout the federal government and has made a significant impact on clearance processing times and accuracy. OPM currently receives over 99 percent of its applications through e-QIP, Miller noted.
Overall, future clearance reform will focus both on leveraging technology to increase agency reciprocity programs, as well as continued emphasis on the topic of overclassification – both in terms of classified materials themselves, as well as the numbers of cleared personnel.