DCSA opens ‘front door’ to next-gen background investigation system

The introduction of “e-App” is a key development in an NBIS software project that’s considered the cornerstone of federal personnel vetting reforms.

The “front door” to the National Background Investigation Services software program is open, with a new portal for submitting security clearance applications up and running, according to the head of the NBIS program.

The introduction of “e-App” is a key development in an NBIS software project that’s considered the cornerstone of federal personnel vetting reforms.

Jeff Smith, the executive program manager for NBIS at the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency, says the e-App software successfully went through a pilot phase that started late last year. About 65 agencies are now using e-App to submit background investigations cases, Smith said on Inside the IC. The new software has processed about 3,300 cases so far.

The e-App software is replacing the legacy “Electronic Questionnaires for Investigations Processing (e-QIP) system. The new interface is intended to be more user-friendly and modern than the e-QIP systems for those who submit standard forms for federal employment screening.

“The beauty about e-App is it’s a much more robust, intuitive front end,” Smith said. “It has logic built into it for error checking and correction.”

Where errors in manual applications and even the online e-QIP form could often lead to lengthy corrections processes, e-App has been designed to not allow applicants to move forward until they submit information correctly, Smith said.

“It removes a lot of the errors up front, therefore reducing any turnaround time or the back and forth, ultimately speeding along the applicants clearance request, and/or the periodic re-investigation for future deferment into continuous vetting,” Smith said.

Ultimately, NBIS is intended to replace seven legacy systems with an integrated, end-to-end system to streamline the security clearance process for the vast majority of agencies, making the e-App case initiation system a crucial component of the effort.

“Every case is submitted that’s submitted through the front door of NBIS is one less case that will be submitted in e-QIP,” Smith said. “So it by natural process of growth and maturity, the reliance on those legacy systems starts to ultimately go the other way, go down, to a point where we get enough maturity where we can start to look at opportunities to sunset those systems.”

‘Foot not coming off the gas pedal’

The NBIS project has taken many twists and turns since it was initially conceived in 2015 after a legacy background investigation system at the Office of Personnel Management was hacked. 

When several security clearance functions were merged into the new DCSA in 2019, officials took a hard look at a software replacement project that was struggling to meet its schedule and get off the ground.

By then, DCSA had successfully reduced a massive background investigations case backlog to a manageable level, and officials began putting more attention into the future of the personnel vetting process under an initiative called “Trusted Workforce. 2.0.”

“NBIS was the question of the day,” Smith said.

After DCSA took over the software program from the Defense Information Systems Agency, officials re-baselined the project, setting a new target of fiscal 2023 to retire legacy systems with the new NBIS suite of capabilities.

Since the reset, the program has shifted to an “agile” strategy where it releases new software incrementally, building on the functionality over time.

Smith says the program has planned quarterly releases, as well as “point releases” to fix any potential issues that arise in the software. Peraton is the prime contractor working on NBIS.

“There’s constant activity, software being added, infrastructure being added, in a path to mature the system for the mission owners to be able to take over and start to use and operationalize,” Smith said.

But COVID-19 has presented the program with one of its biggest challenges since the schedule was reset, Smith said.

In addition to e-App and other case management capabilities, a key component of NBIS is housing “continuous vetting” software to automatically flag potential issues with cleared individuals, like an arrest or suspicious financial transaction, that could put their clearance status at risk.

Instituting a system of automated records checks requires a close working relationship between DCSA and customer agencies who use the NBIS services.

“If they’re not necessarily back in the offices in secure arenas, or their documentation to establish these automated records checks isn’t up to date, that can impact your development cycle,” Smith said.

“So while one agency with a great team can continue to manage through COVID, not everyone is equal . . . The challenges start to hit your schedule when you have dependencies on external agencies, both from a documentation standpoint, a technical exchange standpoint, and then just getting access to the information,” Smith said.

Still, Smith said the NBIS program is still targeting fiscal 2023 to retire legacy background investigations systems.

“As long as we’re identifying and managing the risk, and maybe even accepting some risks as we build this out, I think we can hit our goals,” Smith said. “We believe we are on target and we’re not giving up our foot is not coming off the gas pedal for FY 23.”

‘Much more robust capability’

By last fall, DCSA had reached the “Trusted Workforce 1.25” milestone by enrolling all 3.6 million cleared Defense Department personnel, civilians and contractors in an initial system of three, “high-value” automated records checks, including criminal activity.

DCSA is expanding the system of alerts to seven different types of records under the “Trusted Workforce 1.5” milestone this fall.

Meanwhile, the NBIS program is laying the ground work for a “Trusted Workforce 2.0” system that include up to 26 different types of automated records checks.

NBIS will provide a “much more robust capability to provide end-to-end enterprise support for continuous vetting,” Smith said. “But it is a very deliberate and methodical approach. You have to get your technology matured, you got to get into the hands of the users and let them get comfortable. And then simultaneously marry those up with organizations and agencies and then start to allow the thing to expand in functionality and security.”

So far, continuous vetting has largely replaced the need to conduct “periodic re-investigations” on security clearance holders. But officials also want to leverage automated records checks during the initial background investigations phase, with the NBIS program building new case processing and management capabilities as well.

Smith says consolidating several disparate legacy systems under the NBIS platform will help investigators, adjudicators and other mission leads find and share the information they need more easily.

He says NBIS is leveraging the code and infrastructure developed for case initiation software and other capabilities to build out background investigations processing capabilities.

“At this point, we have some foundational elements invested in for the background investigation mission,” Smith said. “We are working to prioritize all operational capabilities from the business and build it, not to replace the single functions that they have today, but really to find transformational processes that will make the background investigation process more efficient.”


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