OMB's Johnson cites progress on security clearances

Be patient. We're making good progress on reforming the 50-year-old security clearance process. That was the message Clay Johnson, deputy director at the Office of Management and Budget, delivered to a gathering of federal contractors and government officials today.

Johnson cited OMB statistics that show a steady decline in the average time the clearance process takes, including investigation and adjudication ? down from 250 days in 2005 to 136 days so far in 2008. "That's almost a 50 percent reduction in 2 1/2 years," he said.

Johnson said intelligence agency clearances have gone from 162 days to 112, a 30 percent reduction. And he noted that the backlog of processing clearances has been reduced from about 497,000 in 2006 to 315,000 as of March 2008.

At the same time, the number of investigators, including those employed by private companies such as USIS Corp., has risen from a few thousand in 2005 to more than 9,000 this year. "But the only way we can get [clearances down] to 60 days, or south of 60, is to dramatically change the process," he said.

Johnson added that the process will not go from an all-paper one to an all-electronic system anytime soon.

"One of the things that is going on now in the Defense Department is we are looking to remedy the current fact that it takes longer to adjudicate an industry request for security clearance than it does an employee request," Johnson said.

He added that DOD is in the process of eliminating what it determines are unnecessary steps for industry clearances and making the processing time equal for industry and individual clearances by the end of the year.

But Johnson and other speakers said there is no end-to-end solution that will create a rapid and thorough vetting process anytime soon.

"We still want to know a lot about people before we determine they are suitable for access to secure information," he said. But Johnson rejected the notion that the government could simply adopt a clearance system similar to that used in private industry and on Wall Street.

"In effect, what they are doing is the equivalent of a secret clearance, and we do a lot of secret clearances," he said. "Those kinds of clearances can be done ? a big percentage of them ? in days. But we also deal with some very complex clearances that Wall Street does not deal with at all."

How quickly the reform can be completed will be determined by the new administration and available funding, Johnson added. "We'll need to focus not on the ideal but on what is practical."

"We can't change [the system] overnight. But we're pleased with the direction that they're taking," said Trey Hodgkins, vice president of federal government programs in the Public Sector Group at the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA), which hosted the seminar.

Hodgkins said the work of OMB, the Office of Personnel Management and Joint Security and Suitability Reform Team include many of the elements that ITAA has been advocating, including the greater use of governmental and commercial databases and continuous reinvestigation of cleared employees.

"It's our opinion, industry's opinion, that we can only improve the existing system in [the clearance] process so much. Then we have to look at the new technologies that were not envisioned and not put in place in that old process. That's what this effort is about."

"Our intent is to work with them, to see that they have the congressional support they need, the budgetary support they need and the support of the next administration to continue this [reform]," he said. "Part of our challenge is to make sure the new administration understands how important this is to industry."

About the Author

David Hubler is the former print managing editor for GCN and senior editor for Washington Technology. He is freelance writer living in Annandale, Va.

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