CX Exchange 2024: DCSA’s Mark Pekrul on bringing more transparency to clearance process

The Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency is one of the federal government’s newest HISP agencies.

The Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency is one of the federal government’s newest high impact service providers.

DCSA was designated as a HISP at the start of fiscal 2024. The agency conducts 95% of the federal government’s background investigations, effectively serving as a gateway to critical jobs across agencies and contractors.

Selected due to the scale and critical nature of their public-facing services, HISPs conduct assessments of their high-impact services, measure their customer experience maturity and identify actions to improve service delivery.

Mark Pekrul, deputy assistant director of customer and stakeholder engagement at DCSA, said he’s hopeful about how the HISP designation will improve the agency’s contact with its customers.

“It’s going to be resources. It’s going to be ideas. It’s going to be opportunities to better measure success, find areas of improvement and implement those,” Pekrul said during Federal News Network’s CX Exchange 2024.

How DCSA hopes to improve clearance process CX

DCSA has always maintained a close relationship with its traditional customers — the agencies that pay it to carry out background investigations as part of a fee-for-service model.

But the millions of people who go through the background investigations process every year have often been underserved when it comes to customer experience, Pekrul said. Paying attention to those individuals and their experiences will be crucial as the federal government competes with the private sector for talent.

“We really want to pay attention to that and make the process as easy as it can be,” he said. “The process is always going to have to be a little bit — and I don’t use this word in a pejorative sense — intimidating. Because it is a serious process we’re asking for when you fill out your form. We’re asking for serious information. And yes, occasionally, you’ll be reporting information that you might otherwise prefer not to.”

Although not all individuals will be granted security clearance due to a range of factors, Pekrul said the process could always be made easier and clearer for applicants.

“There are a lot of misconceptions out there about what the vetting process is, what it will do to you as you’re going through it — what it won’t do,” he said. “These are all ways that we can just help inform people and make the experience the least intimidating it can be.”

Trusted Workforce 2.0

DCSA’s designation as a HISP dovetails with a governmentwide push to modernize personnel vetting, a process called Trusted Workforce 2.0.

Under the effort, officials have sought to reduce security clearance timelines, streamline and upgrade technologies, and make key policy changes, such as how the background investigation process treats mental health.

DCSA is also updating the technology systems behind the background investigations process. The National Background Investigation Services (NBIS) will modernize several older IT systems into a single, cloud-based service. The agency took a major first step in NBIS progress when it unveiled a new e-application (eApp) portal in 2022.

Pekrul said DCSA officials have also discussed the potential of introducing a feature that lets applicants better understand where they stand in the process. Many applicants are often left waiting for months or longer for their security clearance case to be completed, often with few or no updates.

“It would have to be in some cases rather high level, but it would be able to say, ‘OK, your investigation is still open,’ or ‘The investigation is closed, and your hiring agency has it,’ for example,” Pekrul said.

DCSA’s customer engagement

In recent years, DCSA has also established a customer engagements team that Pekrul said is also sometimes referred to as the Applicant Knowledge Center.

“It provides a fully manned, federal employee help desk function for applicants that are going through the process — everything from simple password resets to more involved system issues, and just questions about how to properly perform this entry point of the background investigation,” he said.

But to expand its CX, the agency will need to invest in both more staff and training to keep up with the demand from security clearance applicants.

DCSA’s designation as a HISP could help in that area. Pekrul also hopes it will let DCSA glean more details about its customers’ experiences, which then can allow for data analytics to inform decision-making.

“We hope to be able to improve our annual surveys of our federal customer agencies, find better ways to gather and use information gathered that way,” he said. “We’re always looking for new ways to do it. It’s cliché, but it’s continual process improvement. And I think with some of these tools that we haven’t had before, we’re going to be able to make great strides.”

Discover more customer experience tactics and takeaways from Federal News Network’s CX Exchange 2024 now.

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