“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” philosopher George Santayana famously wrote. The question for reformers of federal personnel vetting is whether this adage serves as wise counsel, dire warning or fateful prediction. Regardless, now is the time for the leaders of reform to redouble their commitment to transforming federal personnel vetting.

The backlog of security clearances has been eliminated and the time it takes to clear people has significantly improved — approaching rigorous standards set by the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004. This is a major achievement for administration and congressional reformers and their industry partners. Congress supplied oversight and legislative pressure for performance improvement. Industry highlighted its struggles to provide cleared staff for national security missions and offered workable recommendations. A core group of agencies — the Office of Management and Budget, Department of Defense, Office of the Director of National Intelligence and Office of Personnel Management — responded by clearing an excess backlog of over 500,000 cases through carefully crafted policy changes, increased capacity and a realignment of operational responsibilities across the executive branch.

Well done! The major work of reform, however, still lies ahead.

Taming the backlog was the first step in the government’s two-track reform plan, known as Trusted Workforce 2.0. The second is an ambitious program to transform the entire 60-year-old personnel vetting process for the information age. TW 2.0 entails re-thinking policy standards for both hiring and security clearances, major process reengineering and innovative, agile IT capabilities. The platform under construction, the National Background Investigation Services, or NBIS, is the key IT-enabler to making the reform vision a reality.

Technology is at the center of most transformation initiatives, and personnel vetting reform is no different. Modern, cyber-secure IT and novel data sources have long been hoped-for improvements to this manual and antiquated process. With a few notable exceptions, the vetting process exists today as it has for decades: siloed IT systems cobble old data; investigations for security clearances at one agency do not satisfy the suitability requirements for hiring at others; and publicly available electronic information from applicants' online lives lies largely beyond investigators' reach.

TW 2.0 promises the technological leap to put these problems in the past; however, NBIS development shows signs of struggle. In OMB’s second quarter 2020 progress report, two of seven IT milestones were missed and four others were reported “at risk,” with rollouts delayed and “re-baselined.” Even with the improvements to the foundational architecture that have been made, this report is a red flag that should draw reform leaders to drill down on the issues and take definitive action to reverse this downturn.

Without a well-functioning, secure NBIS IT system used by all agencies, transformation will remain elusive. Lacking access to relevant information, agencies will continue to perform redundant tasks and distrust each other’s decisions. As a result, “reciprocity,” the ability to move the trusted workforce — whether military, federal civilian or contractor — among agencies and critical missions, will remain an unrealized goal. We will grind on, working to perfect the buggy whip when what we need is an electric car.

We are especially concerned because we have seen this movie before, and it did not end well. In 2004, the IRTPA made a major push for vetting reform to eliminate that era’s major backlog. The IRTPA instituted goals and standards, and then top-level focus from OMB, ODNI, DoD and OPM spurred metric-driven progress. By 2009, that backlog was gone. These agencies also had plans for reform and IT modernization, but with the backlog’s elimination, urgency dissolved, and senior-level attention shifted to other priorities. Over time, a new backlog emerged, the one agencies only just tamed.

The lesson is to sustain the reformers' sense of urgency. The federal government is awash in daunting challenges. Every administration struggles to align its resources with its priorities. In his book, “The Hardest Job in the World: The American Presidency,” John Dickerson describes how this dynamic forces presidents and their administrations to juggle urgent matters, which risks letting the urgent supersede the important. In recent years, the backlog got urgent attention, but transformation is arguably more important. Reform agencies need their leaders to continue to prioritize reform if their transformation plans are to succeed.

Here is what we recommend:

  1. Issue presidential direction to cement personnel vetting reform as a governmentwide priority. A National Security Policy Memorandum would put the president’s personal stamp on the transformation agenda and empower change at the agency level. A draft NSPM was cleared by all agencies and readied for the president’s signature last year. It is past due.
  2. OMB, ODNI, DoD and OPM must continue to collaborate as a Performance Accountability Council true to its name. However, one PAC member should be directly accountable to the president for governmentwide change. We need a “leader of the PAC.”
  3. Take full advantage of the NBIS re-baselining to make the fundamental program changes necessary for success. Broaden government and industry participation in the development process to help bring about secure NBIS functionality, user buy-in and broader governmentwide adoption.
  4. Exercise expert, independent acquisition oversight for NBIS within DoD — especially from the undersecretary for acquisition and sustainment — to help drive delivery of a secure and modern system that will produce needed capabilities and merit user and congressional trust.

With top leadership commitment and a relentless focus on reform objectives and execution, this bit of history may yet earn its desired ending.

Bryan Smith is a senior fellow at George Mason University’s National Security Institute. He served as a former member of the Senior Executive Service at OMB and as a professional staff member of the House and Senate intelligence committees.

John P. Fitzpatrick served as senior director on the National Security Council staffs of the Obama and Trump administrations; as director of the Information Security Oversight Office; and as assistant deputy director of national intelligence for security.

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