The Pentagon Is Overhauling the Security Clearance Process

That includes a hunt for new ideas and companies to do background checks.

The Defense Security Service is preparing to take over all background investigations for civilian and defense agencies and doesn’t want to inherit stale and potentially broken processes, officials told Nextgov.

The Defense Department office is currently reviewing white papers obtained through an other transaction authority solicitation seeking innovative methods for conducting background checks of current and potential federal employees who need security clearances.

The project is not about the technology behind background investigations process but rather how to innovate the process itself—from when the SF-86 form is filled out to when the clearance decision is made by the agency—according to Tara Petersen, head of DSS Office of Acquisitions, and her deputy, Stephen Heath.

“We’re really looking broader at the process itself,” Petersen said. “We’re looking to prototype a process.”

“Don’t think of the prototype like a widget,” Heath said. “It’s looking at that whole process: Where can we improve on that, where can we potentially save costs, where can we save time and where can we bring technology advancements into the process that are already out there in the commercial marketplace?”

After the 2015 data breach of Office of Personnel Management that exposed the personal information on more than 20 million current and former federal employees, background investigation duties were transferred to a new agency, the National Background Investigation Bureau with technical support delegated to the Defense Department.

But the security clearance backlog grew to more than 700,000 and the Government Accountability Office added the investigations process to its High-Risk List this year. Congress also passed legislation last year requiring DSS to take over all defense clearances work currently done by NBIB. Now, the administration wants to shift responsibility for all government background checks—defense and civilian—over to the Defense Department. While the lawmakers work that out, DSS is getting ready.

“The secretary [of Defense] is committed to not bringing over a broken process,” said Cindy McGovern, DSS chief of public affairs. “He wants to innovate the process, so that’s what we are looking to do.”

To accomplish this goal, the Office of Acquisitions began looking beyond the traditional government background check companies currently working with NBIB—what Heath called, “The Big Four.” What they found were a number of small companies using innovative processes to speed up investigations using new technologies and ways of parsing data sets.

Based on that preliminary research, DSS decided to use its OT authority rather than issue a traditional request for proposals.

Federal and defense agencies and offices have been turning to OT authorities more and more in order to speed the acquisition process and gain access to more non-traditional contractors. However, for DSS, the flexibility and openness of OT contracts was an added draw.

The Security Service used its OT authority “primarily because we don’t really have an idea of what it is that we want done,” Petersen said. “The other transaction process is initiated with basically a problem statement saying, ‘Here’s what we’re trying to accomplish and we’re looking for ideas on how to accomplish that.’”

In a more traditional contract using the Federal Acquisition Regulation, DSS would have started with a set of requirements—almost a solution—rather than opening the problem to the private sector.

“In a traditional contracting process, you have to define a requirement so that vendors can bid against that,” Petersen said. “At this point, we really don’t know what that looks like.”

Petersen and Heath said DSS received a “good, solid response” to the solicitation, though they declined to share the number of responses and said they have just gotten started with the review process. But both said they were encouraged by the responses.

“We got a good set of responses that we didn’t anticipate because of the way the industry is,” Heath said. “It seems like, based on our market research prior to going this route, that the industry is dominated by a couple companies. So, to see the response rate that we did get was pleasing.”

Based on the white papers received through the solicitation, DSS officials plan to award one or more contracts to vendors who can develop that process. The value of those contracts will be negotiated individually based on the solution being proposed, officials said. There is no ceiling on OT contracts under DSS’ authority but the contracts will have to go through the normal Defense Department approval process.

The Security Service must be able to “demonstrate a transformed capability” by Oct. 1, but there is no hard timeline for moving beyond the prototype phase, officials said.

Meanwhile, the Defense Information Systems Agency is using its OT authority to improve the technical backbone of the process, the National Background Investigations Service. DISA awarded a $49 million OT contract Monday to Virginia-based company Enterprise, LLC to develop the NBIS case management system.

“We’re building a first-of-its-kind enterprise system that brings together the complex integration of a number of disparate systems on an unprecedented scale,” making the OT contract an attractive method, said NBIS Program Manager Raju Shah in a statement. “We needed to hear from as wide a selection of vendors as possible to understand what was possible and be able to narrow to what’s probable.”