Obtaining a government security clearance has been known to take up to a year, and as of late last year, there was a backlog of roughly 230,000. That makes it difficult for government contractors and government agencies to staff critical positions. A provision in the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, however, mandates that by the end of 2006 all clearance requests must be processed in 90 days.
Addressing Congress recently, the Director of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), Linda M. Springer, stated that her office is working to comply with the requirement and will meet the bill’s deadline. She also anticipates that the 230,000-strong backlog will be eliminated.
OPM has instituted several programs aimed at reducing the amount of red tape involved in processing applications. For example, the agency has automated the application process, reducing the paperwork and redundant investigations. OPM has also increased staffing levels devoted to the background investigations program and has collected quarterly data comparing agencies’ annual workload projections with actual clearance requests to ensure that there are enough resources to review applications.
OPM also plans to create a database that would function as a clearinghouse for security information. This is intended to resolve a problem that existed before OPM was chosen as the agency to oversee and conduct security clearances. At that time there were many different methods for adjudicating the process, and it was fairly common for competing agencies to not recognize the clearance of another agency, says William Lucyshyn, director of research for the Center for Public Policy and Private Enterprise at the University of Maryland.
Creating a uniform process will make it easier for contractors to compete for contracts in various agencies and will also allow government employees to be moved around within the federal agencies more efficiently.
Improving the process is critical because without a clearance, a person cannot receive classified information. Therefore, expediting security clearances will have a dramatic impact on the ability of state and local law enforcement and private industry to forge partnerships and share secret information, says Tom Greer, spokesman for Lockheed Martin.
Companies like Lockheed have traditionally dealt with the clearance backlog by looking for job candidates with preexisting clearances. But that limits the pool of potential personnel, perhaps forcing companies to pass over some highly qualified candidates.
While everyone supports OPM’s efforts to expedite the process, Lucyshyn cautions that OPM should consider creating an independent investigator position to oversee the program, randomly checking clearances to ensure that security does not suffer.
“If they put the pressure on and don’t give people the right resources, the right training, and the right kind of [performance] matrices,” he says, “then people may feel like they need to cut corners to get the job done.”