DCSA has a new roadmap for delayed background investigation IT system

The new DCSA director says the NBIS delays are "unacceptable," as he looks to overhaul the program and get it back on track under a new roadmap.

The Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency has sketched out an 18-month roadmap to get the National Background Investigation Services IT system back on track, with the new DCSA director calling the delays “unacceptable.”

In congressional testimony Wednesday, DCSA Director David Cattler said the Defense Department this spring initiated a 90-day recovery plan for the NBIS program, which is charged with delivering new IT capabilities to support the background investigation mission. Cattler took over as director of DCSA in March. He has said addressing NBIS delays is one of his top priorities.

“With the help of our partners in the department and the [Government Accountability Office], we developed a recovery plan to fix these problems including NBIS’s cost, its delivery schedule and its overall performance,” Cattler said during Wednesday’s hearing before the House Oversight and Accountability Committee’s government operations subcommittee. “And outcome of the recovery plan is initial 18-month capability roadmap for NBIS development.”

“To be clear, NBIS development will extend beyond the next 18 months. But I’m confident with this path forward to reset the program,” he added.

NBIS is a key component in the White House-led “Trusted Workforce 2.0” personnel vetting reform initiative. But NBIS is years behind schedule and more than $600 million over budget. DoD planned to deliver all new NBIS capabilities by 2019. But so far, the program has delivered a limited set of new capabilities, including a new “e-application” portal for security clearance applicants.

Cattler said out of the $1.35 billion spent on NBIS so far, approximately $800 million has gone toward new software development, while the remainder has gone to sustaining legacy background investigation systems.

“So we need to prioritize the retirement of the legacy software systems with the thought of how much they cost,” Cattler said. “And ideally, sunset the programs that cost the most at the earliest opportunity, if the technology will allow us to do so.”

Last August, GAO reported for the second time in three years on issues with NBIS, including funding shortfalls due to shifting priorities at DCSA, as well as an unreliable schedule and cost estimate.

Alissa Czyz, director of defense capabilities management at GAO, told the House subcommittee that “DoD was not always listening” to the issues GAO raised regarding NBIS. But she said GAO is “encouraged by recent leadership changes” at DCSA.

“I can’t emphasize enough that [DoD] needs to embrace key program management principles, like having a reliable schedule and cost estimate,” Czyz said. “Without these, programs will continue to suffer setbacks.”

Cattler also said he was committed to working with GAO and other oversight entities. The Pentagon’s acquisition and sustainment office is now the milestone decision authority for NBIS. And Cattler has also asked DCSA’s inspector general to audit the NBIS program.

“I’m committed to building a culture of accountability at DCSA that was lacking in the program,” Cattler said. “Simply and directly: the delay in fielding NBIS is unacceptable to everyone.”

NBIS in the cloud

By the end of June, Cattler said DCSA aims to gain approval for updated acquisition, requirements and program documents for NBIS.

In written testimony, he said DCSA would prioritize five actions over the next 18 months: “modernizing and migrating NBIS applications, aligning acquisition and development actions, adapting our NBIS workforce, aligning program cost and service pricing, and strengthening cybersecurity protections.”

Once the new program plan is approved, Cattler said he will direct DCSA to migrate select systems to cloud services provided through DoD’s Joint Warfighting Cloud Capability (JWCC) contract.

“This will give NBIS a stable, modern platform, security, the ability to scale and will provide application developers and investigative service providers access to modernize to their specific needs,” Cattler explained in written testimony. “In time, this move will allow for shared services.”

DCSA is also focused on restructuring the NBIS team and retraining the program’s workforce. The agency recently hired both a new program executive officer and NBIS program manager.

“We’ve had a lot of advice on who else to hire, who else to bring in,” Cattler said. “For example, user experience experts, [and] people that can help us a little bit more with data architecture. We sent our people out for agile training. We’ve had over 140 receive updated training and agile methods for software development. And we sent some of the program management staff over to the Defense Acquisition University as well, for further training on program management related skills.”

DCSA is also working on a new cost estimate for the NBIS program. Cattler said the agency would also get a separate, independent cost estimate for the updated program.

Czyz applauded DCSA’s new efforts, but said the agency needs to demonstrate more rigor in its planning going forward.

“We are looking forward to seeing the new roadmap and plans,” she said. “But I will say that we have reviewed multiple NBIS roadmaps over the years. And none of them had reliable schedules. In fact, we did a review in 2021. It was unreliable. In our 2023 report, when we re-looked at the new roadmap and new schedule, it was actually worse than the 2021 [plan]. So it’s great that new plans are being formed. But it’s essential that you follow best practices for integrated master schedules to get the plan right, or else we’re just going to keep repeating this over and over.”

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