‘This would be wild’: Officials lay out ambitious goals for federal employee vetting

The new goals for positions requiring a security clearance or a public trust determination would drastically cut down the time it takes to onboard individuals.

Leaders charged with overseeing the government’s personnel vetting processes have established ambitious new goals for how long it should take to clear individuals for government service.

Top officials on the Suitability, Security and Credentialing Performance Accountability Council testified about the personnel vetting process before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence last Wednesday.

The new goals for end-to-end vetting are 25 days for public trust eligibility, 40 days for secret-level security clearance and high-risk public trust eligibility, and 75 days for top-secret eligibility. The current goals are 75 days for secret-level eligibility and 114 days for top-secret, while there isn’t a statutory goal for lower tier, public trust positions.

“This would be wild,” Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Mark Warner (D-Va.) said during the hearing. “You get there, you’ll never get any grief from me, because it’s so much shorter.”

The goals apply to numerous positions across agencies. They pertain to people who need security clearances for accessing national security information and facilities, but also those who need “public trust” investigations because they serve in sensitive positions, like healthcare workers, a committee spokeswoman noted.

“These metrics reflect remarkable progress in revolutionizing a system that has largely not changed in 70 years,” the spokeswoman noted. “Just five years ago, we were looking at clearing someone to the top secret level in two years. Now, we can plausibly target 75 days.”

At the height of a steep background investigations backlog in fiscal 2018, it was taking more than 200 days to evaluate people seeking secret-level clearances and more than 400 days on average for people seeking top-secret clearance.

The Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency has done away with the backlog, and processing times have been cut sharply. The new targets are part of the “Trusted Workforce 2.0” initiative that has already overhauled many aspects of the government’s vetting processes.

Reforms like “continuous vetting”  largely eliminated the need for periodic reinvestigations of employees, allowing investigators to focus their attention on those initially applying to government service.

But it still takes months for most individuals to be cleared. The personnel security clearance process remains on the Government Accountability Office’s “high risk” list, due in large part to the amount of times it takes agencies to complete background investigations.

Officials and lawmakers alike are concerned agencies and contractors are missing out on talented people who won’t wait around for the lengthy vetting process.

“Who can sit around for two or three years to wait to be hired, especially when we’re competing with the private sector for some of this talent?” Senate Intelligence Committee Ranking Member Marco Rubio (R-Fl.) said. “How do we balance the need to bring in people you can trust and understand who they are, with the desire to do it quickly enough so that this is a viable option for people that want to come work here?”

The latest numbers from the fourth quarter of fiscal 2022 show it took an average of 76 days to process an initial secret-level clearance application. For top-secret applications, it took an average of 127 days.

And the new goals are an even bigger stretch considering agencies only track the fastest 90% of cases today. Jason Miller, the deputy director for management at the White House Office of Management and Budget, says OMB is going to start measuring 100% of cases, even the worst outliers.

“We have a huge tail that we’re not even measuring,” Miller said. “We’re trying to measure everything so we can manage it and make sure that we’re really driving transformative impact.”

Kiran Ahuja, the director of the Office of Personnel Management, said reducing the time to vet individuals while maintaining a “trustworthy civil service” is a major priority for OPM.

Ahuja noted part of the Trusted Workforce 2.0 effort has involved streamlining the “suitability” requirements that OPM manages and the “security” requirements overseen by the Director of National Intelligence as part of a consolidation from five tiers of investigation to just three.

“It’s not enough just to attract talent,” Ahuja said. “We must sufficiently vet future employees and efficiently onboard them in a timely manner.”

Intel community on different timelines

The new timelines also wouldn’t apply to most of the intelligence community. While DCSA handles clearance cases for 95% of the government, intelligence agencies handle their own clearance investigations. They often have additional requirements, like a polygraph exam, that add even more time to the overall process.

As part of the Fiscal 2023 National Defense Authorization Act, lawmakers directed intelligence agencies to set a goal of onboarding personnel in 180 days.

“Our goal is to try to come as close to that as possible, given that we have additional steps required to get to the secret, the extra level of security clearance, as well as the pull-up polygraphs and the medical in some cases,” Deputy Director of National Intelligence Stacey Dixon said.

Lawmakers also remain frustrated with long timelines for “reciprocity,” or the process for individuals who are already cleared to move in between positions and contracts in the intelligence community.

“If they have a top secret clearance at the Department of Defense, why isn’t that good enough for the CIA?” Sen. Angus King (D-Maine) asked.

Contractors for the intelligence community have pressed agencies to speed up reciprocity decisions. Dixon said agencies can grant clearance reciprocity in 90% of cases within five days. But 10% of cases present a “challenge,” she said, where one agency may require “additional processes” before granting access to a cleared individual.

But Warner said it’s “oftentimes months” for federal personnel and contractors to move from one intelligence agency position or contract to another.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do in this space,” he said.


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