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The personnel security clearance process has found itself on a list that no government entity is eager to appear on.

It has made the Government Accountability Office High Risk List of areas that need “broad-based transformation or specific reforms to prevent waste, fraud, abuse and mismanagement,” according to a press release.

There is sound reasoning behind the decision to add the clearance process to the list. Two reports have identified areas where improvement is needed:

  • A significant backlog of background investigations. The estimated backlog was about 709,000 in September 2017.
  • There aren’t enough long-term goals for increasing federal and contractor-provided investigators to adequately take on the backlog.
  • Security clearances aren’t processed fast enough.
  • The quality of background investigations isn’t being measured.
  • Security clearance reform initiatives have been delayed.
  • The Department of Defense has concerns about new information technology system development to improve the personnel security clearance process, as well as its connections to Office of Personnel Management legacy systems.

This isn’t the first time the process has appeared on the list due to its risk of being mismanaged, abused or most in need of transformation, NextGov reported. It made the list in 2005 and was removed in 2011 after making progress in addressing ongoing problems.

Progress is slow when it comes to modernizing the clearance process. Right now, it relies heavily on a decades-old model of face-to-face interviews with current or prospective employees’ friends and neighbors, according to the NextGov article. Reinvestigations require those interviews to be conducted every five to 10 years. Continuous evaluation has been introduced, but there still are kinks to work out.

“All of these factors feed the frustration that our clients sometimes feel as they try to work their way through the clearance process,” said security clearance lawyer Catie Young. “Having a security clearance means the difference between being employed or unemployed for some clients.”

The process already takes a long time, even when everything on the SF-86 is completed properly. Confidential or secret clearances can take one to three months, and top-secret clearances can take four to eight months. Some applicants for top-secret clearance have waited more than a year for their investigations to be completed.

“The more there is to investigate, the longer the process takes,” Young said. “This is particularly true if you’ve lived, worked or traveled outside the U.S., or if you have foreign relatives.”

The backlog and other factors clogging the clearance investigation process have more applicants turning to attorneys who specialize in clearance for assistance, in an effort to avoid inadvertent errors that could flag their applications.

Reappearing on the High Risk List ultimately could benefit the process. GAO comptroller general Gene Dodaro described decision as an “effort to limit unauthorized leaks of classified information and to weed out individuals with criminal histories or questionable backgrounds,” according to The Hill. 

“Our objective for the High Risk List is to bring attention to policymakers of the need for action sooner, rather than later,” Dodaro said. “Renewed and strong top leadership commitment will be critical to facilitate progress in reducing the backlog and completing key improvements to the personnel security clearance process.”

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