Background Investigations

Quantity Over Quality Contributes to Broken Background Investigation Process


An article in the Washington Post this weekend argues that despite a background investigation overhaul at the Office of Personnel Management that resulted in the barring of background investigation contractor USIS and was to lead to changes in security clearance processing, the pressures remain much the same for the investigators doing the work.

…”a similar quota system used by USIS to drive its investigators continues at the companies that now perform the bulk of the investigations — and in some cases is even more demanding, according to internal company documents and interviews with current and former investigators,” the article noted.

USIS was disbarred from federal background investigation work in August, after it announced a massive cyber breach and after months of scrutiny, including a Department of Justice lawsuit accusing the firm of poor oversight. In the wake of USIS’ disbarment, the majority of work was passed along to KeyPoint Government Solutions and CACI – a workload of more than 21,000 cases per month. Critics argue the payment structure for contractors still encourages speed over thoroughness.

Background investigators are already limited in what they can and can’t do in the scope of an investigation. In addition to sticking with a pre-set script, investigators are still using a very 1990s-esque pen-and-paper process for conducting investigations and chasing down contacts. In a world where more young people admit to never checking voicemail messages, background investigators are often left to leave a message and wait for a reply – which they may never get. Faced with pressure to move cases through fast and with limited options for tracking down references, many investigators say they have no other option than to move a case along – even if they’re less than satisfied with the report.

Contract investigators still work in a quotes and points system, rather than being paid on salary. In contrast, OPM investigators are paid for “man-hours.” OPM says it has studied how long each case should take and rates employee performance based on that standard. Contract investigators typically obtain their highest salary potential by churning out the highest number of cases. Both contract and government investigators now have universal quality standards OPM noted – something that has, shockingly, never existed in the past.

Reforms come slowly in the security clearance process. And in the wake of the announcement that the SF-86 and SF-85 forms of nearly every government employee are likely in the hands of China, OPM clearly has major issues on its hands. But if the largest leak of national intelligence in government history, and an insider threat shooting aren’t enough to change the security clearance status quo, one has to wonder, what will?


Comment Archive

  1. Avatar

    Getting ready to file for unemployment….

  2. Avatar

    It’s not just the quantity focus, it’s the focus of the quality. Isn’t it interesting that the backgrounds for other non-OPM BI agencies, e.g., NSA, want no-BS, no disclaimer-laden ROIs? Same approach with field work. Any investigator who has done this job knows one size does not fit all. Standardization has the effect of doing more-than-necessary on cases that don’t need it, and less-than-necessary on cases that do.