OMB: This is the year for security clearance reform

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Jason Miller, deputy director of management at the Office of Management and Budget, a key leader in security clearance reform efforts, says to expect major milestones in 2022.

A top leader of the governmentwide effort to overhaul the personnel vetting process and its technology infrastructure says that this year  "is the most significant, most consequential year for personnel vetting reform," with policy changes, technology deployments and onboarding of more employees, agencies and contractors expected in the next deployment of the system called Trusted Workforce 2.0.

"It's soup to nuts reform, one of the most significant governmentwide reforms in years and years. This is a huge undertaking and it requires a very delicate, choreographed dance across a broad set of agencies," said Jason Miller, deputy director for management at the Office of Budget and Management and the chair of the Clearance Suitability and Credentialing Performance Accountability Council, at an event hosted Tuesday by The Intelligence and National Security Alliance. 

The goal is to set up a single vetting system that easily allows clearance holders to move within and across agencies and ditches periodic reinvestigations in favor of continuous vetting, in which automated record checks regularly review cleared individuals.

The government has already started moving to the new framework in stages, with 4 million people enrolled last year in the transitional stage called Trusted Workforce 1.25, said Miller. This stage includes the national security workforce and involves initial high-value automated checks, according to the Defense Department's Counterintelligence and Security Agency.

Next is the transition to the implementation phase called Trusted Workforce 1.5, which will involve onboarding over 400 federal entities, agencies and sub-components and over 10,00 industry organizations, said Miller. The transition to this service level is expected this year, he told FCW.

DCSA, responsible for replacing legacy IT systems it inherited from the Office of Personnel Management with the new National Background Investigations Services system, is expected to have tech deployments this year also, and agencies have implementation responsibilities, too, said Miller.

In January 2022, Christopher Bentley, media relations chief at DCSA, told FCW that the timeline is for NBIS core capabilities to be deployed through 2023 and the legacy systems to sunset in 2024.

"This is all happening in 2022," said Miller. "That's why I refer to it as careful choreography. Any one little piece moving out of line means our entire end-to-end soup-to-nuts reform will fall behind schedule."

New policy is also coming, said Miller.

"We have both the next one, which is our investigative standards, imminently, as well as the overall release of our implementation strategy," he told FCW. 

Miller and other leaders of reform efforts say that the tech is essential.

"That's the long pole in the tent. That is our ability to move from nine different systems that are all different in their approach - paper-based processes - to moving the ball forward," said Miller, who continued to say that "we are also keeping a very close eye on where we are with regards to NBIS progress, both the deployments and the ongoing onboarding."

One area that's long plagued the system is clearance reciprocity, under which agencies honor clearances issued by outside agencies rather than subject a job candidate, contractor or detailee candidate to new vetting.

Long timelines for initial vetting and for transferring between agencies cost government contractors talent, said Carey Smith, president and chief executive officer of the Parsons Corporation. 

"We lose good talent… because it can take anywhere from days to years to be able to transfer," she said of the clearance reciprocity process. Getting a cleared person from one agency to another usually takes around 30 to 60 days, she said, although she's seen it drag on for up to two years. 

Part of the problem is that old policy didn't apply across all employees, leading to agency-by-agency determinations, said Miller. New policy will change this to cover everyone, but it'll also require agency buy-in, he said.

"I will acknowledge that certain agencies may be more reluctant than others on this approach, and that does require pressure from multiple fronts, not just inside the administration but outside the administration as well," said Miller.

Congress has been including pieces of reform in annual intelligence authorization bills "so it doesn't become optional, it needs to become required,"Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), chair of the Select Committee on Intelligence, said at the INSA event. 

There are issues that could require additional legislation, specifically how important information the government has on people going through the background check process can be shared with industry, although there are privacy concerns to be addressed with that as well, said Warner. 

Warner also cautioned that the government will need to confront domestic extremism as part of the vetting process. 

"The world where there are figures that legitimize what happened on January 6 is a very different world than existed five or six years ago," Warner said, warning of the threat posed by individuals who "have taken on political views where their allegiance is not to the constitution and democracy but to the idea that when they don't agree they can take violence into their own hands."