Barely one year ago, the world of security clearances was in crisis. The backlog of investigations for individuals seeking a clearance was well over 700,000 — an all-time high. This backlog created a shortage of cleared workers, with critical government functions delayed or deferred.

Recent actions have dramatically reduced the investigations backlog, now below 350,000 and approaching a steady-state number. However, increases in the number of completed investigations created a new backlog in the next step of the process, which is the adjudication decision of whether to grant a clearance to individual government workers, military personnel, or contractors. Despite this new backlog and the continued long wait times, the security clearance process has made progress.

Big changes are underway. On Oct. 1, the Department of Defense takes over the background investigation mission for the entire federal government, adding it to a new Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency, or DCSA. DoD is implementing a Continuous Evaluation program. CE is designed to catch problems as they emerge, rather than when a cleared individual is periodically reviewed. In addition, a major executive branch initiative is underway, entitled “Trusted Workforce 2.0.” Together, these improvements will help counter increasing threats from both external and internal sources.

The federal contracting industry has a huge stake in the success of these initiatives. Private sector firms who work on government contracts are committed to the missions of their customers. To meet that commitment, they provide flexible and a responsive workforce with clearances. When those clearances are delayed, that workforce cannot respond as effectively. Important work remains unattended, and companies can fall short of contract requirements and even lose revenue.

Because of that strong mutual interest, industry has supported and participated in the government’s improvements and will continue to do so. Congress has played a key role on all of these improvements, with additional attention coming from the Government Accountability Office adding the personnel security clearance process to its “High Risk List.” Key leaders in both the executive and legislative branches have responded to GAO’s call for leadership and action.

Much more work remains, and Congress, in particular, has the opportunity and the responsibility right now to enact lasting changes that will better protect our national security. Current legislation, including both the Fiscal Year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act and the Intelligence Authorization Act, contains a number of vital security clearance-related provisions. Industry urges Congress to act now on both bills.

The provisions will have two major impacts.

First, they will address critical deficiencies that have arisen during the transfer of investigations to DoD and as part of the investigations backlog reduction.

Second, they will enable Congress to improve its oversight as the executive branch implements innovative, more modern processes. By doing so, Congress also makes it possible for industry itself to know where we stand and plan accordingly. This makes for a more cost-efficient contractor workforce.

For example, the increase in adjudication cases requires actions not only by adjudicators but by companies who await those decisions. Industry planning is hampered because information is available only to the agencies. The NDAA will require reporting that will improve transparency and visibility, and also help reduce wait times.

Similarly, DCSA (the new defense agency) will require resources, structures, and priorities that are rare across the government, not only in DoD. Since the law has more permanence than agency charters, provisions in the Senate NDAA will improve oversight and ensure that DCSA has the necessary and proper authorities to execute its mission. The bills also establish clear, concrete performance and accountability expectations for the Executive Branch, needed by all the other agencies and companies that will now be served by DoD.

Additional provisions address other long-standing issues, which industry believes Congress should act to fix, including improving information sharing on insider threat security warnings with both the public and private sectors. Provisions also aid in reforming reciprocity and portability, so contractors can assign employees to meet critical government mission needs.

Finally, implementing the transfer of investigations to DoD and Trusted Workforce 2.0 will require the Congress to exercise its oversight responsibility to ensure these initiatives remain on track.

We urge Congress to retain the security clearance reforms in the final NDAA conference report and send this bill to the president as expeditiously as possible. Individually and collectively, these provisions will make the security clearance process better, faster, more transparent, and more secure. Our national security depends on it.

Progress report: One agency head offers her take on finding cleared workers

(Anne-Marie Hainer/NNSA)