The security clearance backlog, once at a historically high peak of 725,000 in April 2018, is now at its lowest point in three-to-four years.
The investigative inventory jumped from roughly 328,000 in late 2015 to 573,000 cases the next year, according to Performance.gov data. From there, it kept climbing.
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But a new embrace of technology and a concerted effort to hire more investigators has, within a little more than a year, helped slash a once perilously high backlog into one that’s much more manageable.
Today, the inventory sits at 424,000 pending investigative cases, which NBIB Director Charlie Phalen said extends across all case types for both government and industry.
NBIB, which is preparing to transfer its employees and contracts, as well as the security clearance backlog itself to the Defense Department by Oct. 1, sees a healthy goal of 200,000 pending cases as within reach.
In an interview with Federal News Network, Phalen said investigators are closing more cases each week than they were a year ago, despite a weekly intake that’s roughly 6,000 cases higher this year compared to 2018.
Still, he acknowledged NBIB isn’t yet meeting congressionally-mandated timelines to initiate, investigate and adjudicate new security clearances and credentialing cases within 74 to 195 days.
“We’re seeing the median time decrease significantly, down as much as 40% for one case type,” Phalen said. “That’s a good leading indicator. Our work management unit, which is a place where cases would sit until they’re being processed, is way down. It’s probably down 60-to-70% right now. In some cases it’s down to almost zero in some regions.”
Phalen has attributed the progress on the security clearance backlog to several factors. NBIB hired more investigators — about 2,000 more federal and contractor employees in fiscal 2018.
“That workforce on both universes has become better skilled and more mature as time goes on, so their productivity gets better,” Phalen said. “We’ve [also] talked about being able to use them more efficiently.
NBIB set up “hubs” in specific locations with high concentrations of clearance holders. The goal, Phalen said, is to bring security clearance cases to NBIB agents, instead of vice versa. The agency has learned how to parse out the fieldwork associated with one case to multiple agents, he said. Previously, one agent handled one case.
In addition, the agency is beginning to embrace new technology that’s helping NBIB investigators perform their work more efficiently. NBIB, for example, has several pilots ongoing that use robotic process automation to collect additional information to inform their casework.
The agency is also starting to feel more comfortable with technology that’s more widely used in industry and other agencies, such secure video teleconferencing.
“I’ve been in the security business a long time; we’re scared to death of telephones and VTCs and that kind of stuff,” Phalen said. “It took a little while to get over that, but we are over that. What this has done is really improve access to get information resolved. It has improved our ability to reach out to places that are harder to get otherwise.”
NBIB began to use VTC to reach clearance holders and applicants who lived in war zones, where agency investigators can’t easily travel.
“Using this kind of technology to be able to reach out in a very rudimentary fashion really gave us the idea that this is something we can really leverage and expand on this,” Phalen said. “We’ve actually set up virtual hubs with investigators sitting at locations who are able to reach out within an agency or a company to their infrastructure.”
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Though the embrace of secure video teleconferencing to collect information needed for a background investigation may seem trivial, it’s a significant change for the intelligence and security community, which largely hasn’t updated or modernized the clearance process in several decades.
Further updates to the security clearance process are coming under Trusted Workforce 2.0, the Trump administration’s initiative to modernize and rethink the way it initiates “trust” with employees, contractors and others and grants them access to certain government information.
The EO instructs OPM to transfer all resources, authorities and employees associated with the security clearance program to DoD by Oct. 1.
“We’ve been working really collaboratively between OPM and the Department of Defense and others that are involved here too, to make sure as this thing transitions, we do not create problems that don’t exist today and we can continue the momentum both in terms of how we deal with the inventory and how we are bringing this Trusted Workforce 2.0 piece into it,” Phalen said.
Both NBIB and DSS will merge into a new DoD entity called the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency (DCSA).
To prepare for the move, Phalen has been communicating weekly through email and in-person meetings with the NBIB workforce. Employees also have an internal website where they can submit their questions about the transfer.
“We’ve pretty much locked in the things that people are most concerned about. Do I still have a job? Yes, everybody has a job. [Are] payroll … leave … benefits going to be affected? The answer is generally no. The pay and everything stays as it is. We have to keep communicating though.”
Most NBIB employees, at least for now, will continue to work out of their existing buildings. Most employees work out of one of two facilities in either Fort Meade, Maryland, or Boyers, Pennsylvania, and those investigators will stay there.
NBIB’s “headquarters” at OPM’s building in northwest Washington, D.C., will also remain, Phalen said.
“Over time we will look for opportunities to … merge these organizations from a real estate standpoint, but there’s no immediate need to do that on day one because we have leases on these facilities,” he said.
The security clearance transfer also gives NBIB investigators an opportunity to learn new skills and potentially move into different roles, Phalen said.
DSS today helps cleared industrial providers oversee and protect classified information and technology. Phalen sees the potential for longtime NBIB investigators to use their existing skillset to help industry secure their systems or assist agencies with insider threat programs.
“Somebody today that is doing investigations understands what security is about from that sense of [who] is a trusted person,” he said. “Taking that background and putting it into this kind of outreach to industry and being able to talk to folks in industry about what their population looks like, what’s happening in their facilities [and] how they’re secured, gives that employee an opportunity to broaden their knowledge base of the business.”
The defense training activity and NBIB’s investigation training facility have “been joined at the hip” since both agencies began discussing the security clearance transfer, Phalen added. Together, both training activities have been discussing how the new DCSA can cultivate a “new security officer of the future.”
Meanwhile, DoD is standing up a working capital fund that will mirror NBIB’s existing revolving fund. The Pentagon will continue to use OPM’s legacy case management system to process security clearances while the department builds out the National Background Investigations Service. NBIS will one day serve as DoD’s end-to-end security clearance IT system.
In the interim, DoD will reimburse OPM for the use of the legacy system at roughly the same rate as NBIB currently pays to use it today, Phalen said.
“The actual number is still in negotiation, but the costs won’t go up because of this transfer, nor do they magically disappear because of the transfer,” he said.