Backlogs in security clearance program reduced after GAO raises concerns

Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 21, 2011; 10:14 PM

It took so long to get a security clearance for a Defense job back in 2004 that new hires would be given little to do at the office for as long as a year while they waited. Or they might have gotten frustrated and found another job.

The backlog, mainly for defense and intelligence community contractors, grew with the government's national security buildup after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The need for clearances for civilians, contractors and service members grew, but the Defense Department was ill-equipped to handle the surge, and it persisted for years.

The clearance wait grew so long by 2005 - to an average of 200 days for Defense Department applicants and 325 days for contractors - that the Government Accountability Office put the program on its high-risk list, a scarlet letter for federal agencies that raised concerns about mismanagement and a big need for change. Congress stepped in, passing legislation that set targets to clean up the problem and requiring the agencies responsible for it to work together.

Today, thanks to a sustained effort by Defense, Budget, Personnel and Intelligence officials and 14 oversight hearings in Congress, 90 percent of initial security clearances are processed in an average of 49 days, with clearances for contractors issued in an average of 63 days. The program came off the high-risk list last week.

"It happened because we were relentlessly focused on it," said Jeffrey Zients, deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget and the government's chief performance officer.

Zients called the effort led by his agency a "great case study" of collaboration among arms of government with different roles in pushing through the clearances that are vital to classified work.

About 900,000 security clearances are processed annually by the government, with the vast majority for Defense-related positions.

Seven years to fix a problem such as this might seem like a long time to some. But in government, there are so many competing priorities "that you miss things," Zients said. "Backlogs can grow over time, and then you have a serious problem."

The team identified several causes for the backlog. The lengthy security forms had to be filled in by hand, slowing down reviews. Some questions were duplicative; others did not ask applicants important information.

"Many people were in a holding pattern because we couldn't bring them on board," said Beth McGrath, deputy chief management officer for the Defense Department. "Or we would hire them but we couldn't have them do what we hired them to do."

The questionnaires were reworked and most of the system was put online, speeding up the Office of Personnel Management's role in processing applications. Employees who have a clearance and are seeking another job in the federal system can use their prior clearance in many cases, another change that speeds the process. The team met quarterly to review progress and set new targets for processing times. By 2008, the average had dipped to 128 days.

"When you have a backlog like they had, you can't just wipe it out in a few months," said Brenda S. Farrell, the GAO director who oversaw the clearance issue. She recalled that the quality of investigations suffered because so many forms were missing information. "They had zero metrics for quality." Since the clearance program was put on the high-risk list, the GAO issued 26 to 28 audits of the program, Farrell said.

She said the key to getting off the high-risk list is leadership. "They recognized a problem at a top level of government and they sustained the effort to solve it."

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