The National Background Investigations Bureau (NBIB) is focused on a mission that’s twofold: preparing its people and resources for a move to the Defense Department by Oct. 1, while making progress on the ever-dwindling investigative inventory.
A long-awaited executive order, which President Donald Trump signed back in April, designated the Pentagon as the governmentwide security clearance provider. But it also gave the Office of Personnel Management and DoD some tight timelines to transfer all authorities, personnel, resources and IT — as well as the background investigations themselves — from NBIB to a new entity called the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency (DCSA).
“Our absolute goal is … we’re going to do everything we can to avoid speed bumps,” Charlie Phalen, NBIB’s director, told reporters Friday. “On Oct. 2 when you wake up, all you can tell is we have a different t-shirt on.”
The two agencies have been preparing for the security clearance transfer since well before the President made it official with an executive order. The first deadline comes on June 24, when the Defense Secretary and OPM director will sign an agreement that will detail the specifics of the upcoming transfer.
In the mean time, NBIB and DoD are finalizing how the budget, funding streams, IT and workforce will also make the move.
“DCSA is going to set up a working capital fund that will parallel what today is our revolving fund for the investigations piece,” Phalen said. “The rest of what is done at DCSA [will be] appropriations. We will make sure they are fully funded to get them through the transition and stay solvent throughout the beginnings.”
The National Background Investigations Service (NBIS), the new security clearance processing and IT system that the Pentagon has been developing for NBIB since early 2016, won’t be operational until well into fiscal 2020, Phalen said.
Until NBIS is ready for primetime, DoD will continue to use OPM’s legacy background investigations system.
“Part of our goal here as we do this transfer is that that system stays intact, that it stays viable … and secure,” Phalen said. “We may need to make a few modest investments to keep it current, but it’s going to be our workhorse until NBIS comes along and displaces all of that.”
Until that time comes, the OPM chief information officer will continue to manage the legacy system, Phalen said. The Pentagon, in turn, will reimburse OPM for the use of those IT services.
“We fund the CIO to maintain those systems for us today. Tomorrow, DoD will use funding that we are going to transfer over to them to buy back those IT services from OPM,” Phalen said. “[DoD will] also do that regarding the financial support and billing system until they can develop a new one. Whatever other support they need they will look to buy back, if they need extra HR support … during this transition. Those numbers are still being worked out.”
Both agencies are also preparing to transfer NBIB’s existing contracts with the four companies whose investigators help process security clearances on behalf of the agency.
Federal Acquisition Regulations allow NBIB to transfer the contracts for its four investigative service providers from OPM to DoD, Phalen said.
“There are ways to do that under the FAR,” Phalen said. “Today what is an NBIB contract tomorrow is a DoD contract. It will continue the period of performance and when the time comes, just as it would if we had not done the transfer, to think about whether we’re going to recompete, that’s a different question.”
Contracts that support NBIB back office functions will also transfer, he added.
Investigator workforce will evolve
Managing the change that comes with transferring some 10,000 NBIB federal employees and contractors to the Pentagon may be the biggest challenge facing both agencies.
Phalen and Defense Security Service Director Dan Payne have been preparing and sending joint messages to both of their workforces. They’ve been visiting their employees in the field to answer questions.
NBIB also has a database of sorts where employees can send in their questions about the coming transfer and get answers from Phalen and his staff.
“Probably the hardest part is going to be taking 3,500 OPM employees and making them DoD employees virtually overnight at the end of September,” he said. “This is doable. Our goal here is that the paycheck, although it may come from a different place, will arrive on time at the very first pay period.”
The DCSA will include NBIB employees and contractors, the existing Defense Security Service, DoD’s Consolidated Adjudications Facility, the DoD Insider Threat Management and Analysis Center, as well as the employees who are managing and developing NBIS.
With all of those entities under one umbrella, Phalen sees more opportunities for the existing workforce of federal security clearance investigators to evolve and learn more skills.
“What this creates for this combined workforce that they didn’t have before is the opportunity to move throughout this whole ecosystem and have a ton of opportunities and jobs, should they choose to do it,” he said. “We suspect that a lot of these folks are going to want to move around and do other things. It makes them better employees, and more skilled employees, along the way.”
More progress on security clearance backlog
Those DCSA employees will also be involved in the bottom-up transformation that Phalen and others in the Trump administration envision for the entire suitability, credentialing and security clearance processes.
OPM, NBIB and DoD, along with the Office of the Director of the National Intelligence, are finalizing a series of sweeping changes, called Trusted Workforce 2.0, that will ultimately overhaul the principles and standards that agencies currently use to determine a person’s “trust” for working in government.
NBIB has piloted some of the planned business process transformations already, and they’ve helped, in part, whittle the security clearance backlog down to 459,000 cases today.
The existing backlog stands at 459,000 — nearly 260,000 fewer than the record-high 725,000 case backlog back in April 2017.
Phalen said he views this progress as especially promising, especially as NBIB continues to receive a higher workload this year than in the past.
NBIB typically received about 49,000-to-50,000 cases a week. Lately, the weekly caseload has reached the upper 50,000s, he said.
The goal, NBIB has said, is to reach a “steady state” of roughly 200,000-to-250,000 investigatory matters.
Progress has been made for several reasons. First, NBIB investigators, many of whom were new hires when the backlog reached its peak, are more skilled now after more than a year of training and experience.
“Between getting better skilled, we’re finding and have found better ways to use them more efficiently and give them better technology they need and some better schedule strategies,” Phalen said.
In the past, one investigator handled one case from start to finish. But today, NBIB has discovered that regional hubs have allowed their investigators to focus their time and attention in one place. The bureau started with hubs at or near some military bases, but NBIB has also set up hubs for industry clearance holders in southern California, Atlanta and the Washington, D.C., area.
“What that does is it allows those companies to help focus their people on getting these clearances,” Phalen said. “It allows our investigators to spend far less driving from point A to point B to point C.”
NBIB has also started to allow its investigators to resolve non-controversial questions by phone or through secure video-conferencing. It’s tapping into robotics processing automation to collect more data from recognized sources, such as the National Student Clearinghouse system, rather than having an investigator physically travel to an applicant’s former university to collect and verify college transcripts, Phalen said.