Personnel Security Clearances:

An Outcome-Focused Strategy Is Needed to Guide Implementation of the Reformed Clearance Process

GAO-09-488: Published: May 19, 2009. Publicly Released: Jul 14, 2009.

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Personnel security clearances are used to verify that national security information--which in some cases could cause exceptionally grave damage to national security if disclosed--is entrusted only to those who have proven reliability and loyalty to the nation. In response to long-standing problems with timeliness and backlogs, Congress mandated clearance reforms as part of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 (IRTPA), and since 2005 the Department of Defense's (DOD) clearance program has remained on GAO's high-risk list despite improvements in timeliness. In 2007, a Joint Reform Team, led by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), was established to improve the clearance process across the government. GAO was asked to review the extent to which reform efforts (1) align with key practices for organizational transformations and (2) address identified factors for reforming the personnel security clearance process. To assess these objectives, GAO compared joint reform reports to key transformation practices and essential factors for reform.

Initial joint reform efforts have, in part, aligned with key practices for organizational transformation, such as having committed leadership and a dedicated implementation team, but reports issued by the Joint Reform Team do not provide a strategic framework that contains important elements of successful transformation, including long-term goals with related outcome-focused performance measures to show progress, or identify obstacles to progress and possible remedies. To communicate plans of the reform efforts, the Joint Reform Team issued three reports, including an initial reform report in April 2008 that presented a new 7-step process design, a December 2008 update, and a March 2009 Enterprise Information Technology Strategy. Consistent with practices that GAO has previously identified, the executive branch established a Performance Accountability Council to achieve reform goals, drive implementation, and oversee the reform. Membership on this council currently includes senior executive leaders from 11 federal agencies. Further, an executive order designates OMB's Deputy Director for Management as the chair of this council. However, it is difficult to gauge progress of reform, or determine if corrective action is needed, because the council, through the Joint Reform Team, has not established a method for evaluating the progress of the reform efforts. In the absence of a strategic framework that is outcome focused, with clearly defined performance measures, the Joint Reform Team is not in a position to demonstrate to decision makers the extent of progress that it is making toward achieving its desired outcomes. The personnel security clearance joint reform reports that GAO reviewed collectively do begin to address essential factors for reforming the security clearance process, which represents positive steps. GAO's prior work and IRTPA identified several factors key to reforming the clearance process. These include (1) developing a sound requirements determination process, (2) engaging in governmentwide reciprocity, (3) building of quality into every step of the process, (4) consolidating information technology, and (5) identifying and reporting long-term funding requirements. However, the Joint Reform Team's informationtechnology strategy does not yet define roles and responsibilities for implementing a new automated capability which is intended to be a cross-agency collaborative initiative. GAO's prior work has stressed the importance of defining these roles and responsibilities when initiating cross-agency initiatives. Also, the joint reform reports do not contain any information on initiatives that will require funding, determine how much they will cost, or identify potential funding sources. Without long-term fundingrequirements, decision makers in both the executive and legislative branches will lack important information for comparing and prioritizing proposals for reforming the clearance processes. The reform effort's success will be dependent upon the extent to which the Joint Reform Team is able to fully address these key factors moving forward.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: GAO recommended that the Office of Management and Budget's (OMB) Deputy Director for Management, in the capacity as Chair of the Performance Accountability Council, ensure that the appropriate entities--such as the Performance Accountability Council, its subcommittees, or the Joint Reform Team--establish a strategic framework that would address our findings. OMB, ODNI, and DOD partially concurred with our recommendation and, in response to our recommendation, the leaders of the reform effort met the intent of our recommendation through two publications. In February 2010, the leaders of the reform effort established the Security and Suitability Process Reform Strategic Framework. Specifically, the strategic framework identified a mission statement and seven strategic goals for reciprocity, a database, automation, timeliness, alignment, continuous evaluation, and quality. Additionally, the framework identified performance measures for each of the strategic goals. The framework also included a strategic communications plan that provides a formal Performance Accountability Council communication strategy to sustain reform initiatives. It sets forth the objectives, methods, and responsibilities to ensure consistency of message and two-way communication in support of suitability and security clearance reform efforts. Another element of the strategic framework was a discussion of reform effort information technology initiatives, which listed agencies' roles and responsibilities for the implementation of the information technology strategy. Further, the strategic framework introduced elements of reform funding requirements, specifically stating that resources from DOD and OPM will be sufficient to implement the transformed security clearance process and that agencies will provide the Performance Accountability Council with reform implementation updates. In May, 2010, the leaders of the reform effort submitted a letter to a congressional oversight committee that further developed the outcome-focused performance measures introduced in the February 2010 strategic framework. In response to our recommendation, the publication of the strategic framework and the congressional letter have helped reform leaders align the reform effort with key practices for organizational transformations to better address long-standing problems with the security clearance process.

    Recommendation: To further align the reform effort with key practices for organizational transformations and better address the long-standing problems, the OMB Deputy Director of Management should, in the capacity as Chair of the Performance Accountability Council, ensure that the appropriate entities--such as the Performance Accountability Council, its subcommittees, or the Joint Reform Team--establish a strategic framework for the joint reform effort to include (1) a mission and strategic goals; (2) outcome-focused performance measures to continually evaluate the progress of the reform effort toward meeting its goals and addressing long-standing problems with the security clearance process; (3) a formal, comprehensive communication strategy that includes consistency of message and encourages two-way communication between the Performance Accountability Council and key stakeholders; (4) clear roles and responsibilities for the implementation of the information technology strategy, for example, by establishing memorandums of understanding delineating the roles and responsibilities of all agencies responsible for developing and implementing components of the information technology strategy; and (5) long-term funding requirements for security clearance reform, including estimates of potential cost savings from the reformed process, to be provided to decision makers in Congress and the executive branch.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Office of Management and Budget

 

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