The backlog for security clearances for the federal workforce and contractors has spiked once again. According to an article published last month in the Washington Post, more than 700,000 applicants wait for federal background checks.
Back in March, the process for a top security clearance took more than 450 days to conclude. That’s at least six months longer than it took in April 2016, says a federal official.
Considering the high number of people waiting for clearance, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) stopped counting, or at least reporting on how many people are in limbo. The decision appears to be the result of two White House-related incidents: the Trump Administration’s broader effort to streamline agencies’ operations and George Nesterczuk, the man President Trump nominated to lead the efforts, who withdrew his name from consideration, leaving the OPM without a permanent director.
This long delay is creating significant problems with government contractors who are unable to hire skilled employees to work in key, sensitive positions or projects. So much so that the shortage of skilled, cleared employees is disrupting government work and forcing contractors to spend billions of dollars on payroll for employees who are unable to work because they lack clearance.
In recent years, effectively managing and improving this process has been a growing challenge for Washington. Not to mention a series of recent events that compounded the problem.
Consider Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who was cleared but still leaked classified information to news organization. That same year, a shooting by another cleared government employee near the District’s Navy Yard caused concerns that too many people were being approved for clearance and prompted the government to overhaul its screening process. Then in 2015, hackers accessed confidential and personal information about employees and revealed it online. As a result, the OPM temporarily suspended clearance investigations.
Another reason for long delays is that the White House discontinued a broad set of reporting standards that existed under the Obama administration. According to a June memo from the Office of Management and Budget, new administrative goals are being established and will be incorporated into the president’s next budget. Industry groups say this directive has made it more difficult to track OPM’s progress.
Meanwhile, members of Congress have been pushing for transparency. In July, the House passed a bill that would require OPM to publish quarterly, detailed reports about the size of the clearance backlog in addition to the average time it takes to complete an investigation.
In a white paper published by Raytheon, the defense manufacturer revealed that it requested 2,348 clearances at the “secret” level between Jan. 2016 and April 2017 for newly hired employees. But 72 percent had not been filled as of last April.
Consider that the Human Resources Association of the National Capital Area, which tracks payroll trends, found a link in 2013 between skilled employees who already have a security clearance and five to 15 percent higher wages.
Raytheon’s white paper addresses the consequences that the federal government and contractors are now facing as a result of these massive delays in background checks:
“Many talented employment prospects simply decide to seek alternative employment, rather than wait for a clearance determination. These departures not only undermine the industry’s ability to recruit the best and brightest for government programs, they also impose additional costs to government programs as new candidates must be identified, hired, and resubmitted for clearances.”