There’s bad news and good news about the Department of State’s security clearance process.

The bad news is that no one knows how long it takes to process clearances, or how much the Department of State spends on its clearance investigations, according to an evaluation by the Office of the Inspector General released in July.

The good news is that the Department of State plans to implement all five of the Inspector General’s recommendations to correct the problems.

The IG report addresses:

  • Accuracy of information regarding timeliness
  • Factors that slow security clearance processes
  • How costs associated with security clearance work are tracked

The Department of State is among 22 agencies that conduct their own background investigations. It processed more than 63,000 initial Secret and Top Secret clearance applications between 2012 and 2016, the timeframe the IG looked at for its evaluation. It also processed about 2,700 reciprocal clearances for Department employees, contractors and student interns.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence reports annually on the volume and timeliness of clearances processed. However, in reviewing timeliness data maintained by the Department, the IG discovered numerous mistakes that made it impossible to determine how long it takes to complete initial and reciprocal Secret and Top Secret clearances, the report stated. “The Department does not maintain any data on conversion timeliness, so the processing time for those efforts are also unknown.”

The IG identified several issues that affect the timeliness of clearance processing, including confusion over Human Resources’ roles and responsibilities, lack of resources, and a large number of student interns who required clearances.

Because the Department uses cost estimates and doesn’t know actual costs, it is unable to recoup the cost of security clearance processing it performs for other government agencies. Between 2012 and 2015, the Department also neglected to seek payment for “overseas investigatory work performed for other agencies, potentially costing the Department millions of dollars in lost reimbursements,” according to the report.

The IG evaluation included the following recommendations:

  1. Measure how long it takes clearances to “move through the initiation stage rather than relying upon a blanket estimate. Remove cancelled cases from data and correct its timeliness formula accordingly. Clear up information discrepancies in case management systems.
  2. Establish responsibilities for processing security clearance requests in an effort to reduce or eliminate unnecessary delays. Ensure employees receive proper training.
  3. Investigate the workforce to determine whether the department is properly staffed to meet timeliness goals.
  4. The Bureau of Human Resources should establish procedures to use the Office of Personnel Management’s automated tool to assess the proper security clearance necessary for student interns.
  5. Determine the cost of the security clearance work performed for other government agencies so expended funds can be recouped.

In 2016, the Director of National Intelligence reported that more than 4.2 million federal government and contractor employees held a security clearance. Congress mandated personnel security clearance reforms in the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 to address ongoing problems with delays and backlogs.

The Government Accountability Office has repeatedly highlighted the need to increase efficiency and manage security clearance-related costs. But that’s difficult to do when agencies can’t identify the costs.

“As a security clearance lawyer who assists applicants in obtaining clearance for their jobs, I can empathize with their frustration over the lengthy process because it impedes their ability to earn a living,” Catie Young says. “My hope is that the process will improve now that there are clearly defined recommendations.”