The government is completing its initial personnel security investigations in an average of 36 days, a sharp drop from the 145 days average in 2005, according to testimony Thursday before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee.
The Office of Personnel Management’s background investigations for top secret clearances average 72 days, compared to 308 days in 2005. Reinvestigations, which are required every five years for employees with top security clearance average 93 days against 419 days in 2005. All other secret or confidential clearance reinvestigations average 31 days now against 115 days in 2005.
“We have no backlogs, are meeting timeliness mandates, and have increased automation,” said Merton W. Miller, associate director of investigations for the Federal Investigative Service, which provides background investigations for 90 percent of the federal government.
Miller said a key change was updating the national security questionnaire, the Standard Form 86, which now seeks more information from applicants. That has streamlined the interview process. An increased emphasis on filling out forms electronically, rather than on paper, decreased the number of incomplete or illegible forms and led to fewer backlogs, Miller said. OPM now receives 99 percent of all its background check requests through an electronic processing system, Miller said. The Department of Defense submits all its requests electronically.
The Department of Defense also implemented computer systems to quickly find incomplete forms and a separate quality review process, according to the testimony of Gene L. Dodaro, U.S. comptroller-general.
“They are creating a model,” said Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), who chaired the subcommittee hearing. “It’s showing how government can be more efficient.”
At least 3.9 million federal employees and contractors hold security clearances, according to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. But officials had grown concerned that an inefficient background check system and vast backlogs could lead to security lapses. In 2005, the Government Accountability Office placed the Department of Defense’s security check system on its high risk list. The department was removed from that list in 2005.
Akaka said that while federal background checks have made considerable progress recently, issues still remain. He said the government needs to continue oversight, and reciprocity, where security clearances can cross government agencies, still lead to inefficiencies.