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Personnel Vetting: Actions Needed to Implement Reforms, Address Challenges, and Improve Planning

GAO-22-104093 Published: Dec 09, 2021. Publicly Released: Dec 09, 2021.
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Fast Facts

The government's security clearance process can help protect classified information. But due to concerns with timeliness, IT security, and more, we added this vetting process to our High Risk List in 2018.

The government has made progress on vetting reforms. For example, the executive branch has reduced the investigations backlog and started developing IT systems to modernize the vetting process. However, work remains. For example, a new process that enables agencies to continuously vet personnel via automated record checks needs its effectiveness evaluated. Our recommendations address this and other issues.

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Highlights

What GAO Found

The Security, Suitability, and Credentialing Performance Accountability Council (PAC) Principals—comprising the Deputy Director for Management of the Office of Management and Budget, the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), the Director of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), and the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence and Security—have made progress in implementing Trusted Workforce 2.0, which is a reform of personnel vetting processes. The PAC Principals reduced a backlog of investigations, have begun to develop a policy framework for a new approach to personnel vetting, and have begun to develop needed information technology (IT) systems.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) has formalized requirements to enroll the eligible national security population in continuous evaluation (CE), but has not assessed program performance. CE entails enrolling employees in IT systems that conduct automated record checks on a frequent basis. As of March 2021, about three-quarters of the eligible national security population in executive branch agencies were enrolled in a CE system, according to ODNI officials. In 2017 GAO recommended that ODNI develop performance measures to evaluate CE and a plan to address its impact on agency resources. ODNI concurred with GAO's recommendation but has delayed taking actions in response and will not do so until CE is fully implemented, according to ODNI officials. This lack of progress may warrant congressional consideration, as it could limit ODNI's and congressional decision-makers' ability to assess the effectiveness and impact of continuous evaluation.

The Department of Defense (DOD) does not have a reliable schedule to help manage the National Background Investigation Services (NBIS) system. DOD has been developing NBIS since 2016, and DOD plans to replace the IT systems it currently uses to manage the background investigation process with NBIS. GAO assessed the NBIS schedule using GAO best practices and found it did not meet the characteristics of a reliable schedule (see table). By aligning the NBIS schedule with the characteristics of a reliable schedule, DOD could improve the likelihood of completing NBIS on schedule and improve decision-making during the program's development.

Table: Extent to Which NBIS Schedule Meets Best Practices

Characteristics of a reliable schedule

GAO assessment of the characteristic

Comprehensive

Partially met

Controlled

Partially met

Well-constructed

Minimally met

Credible

Minimally met

Source: GAO analysis of information for the National Background Investigation Services (NBIS) system. | GAO-22-104093

Further, DOD has taken limited strategic workforce planning steps for its entire personnel vetting workforce because it has not established a milestone for doing so. By establishing a milestone, DOD would create an accountability mechanism to complete its planning, which would help it determine the right mix of skills and competencies needed to effectively accomplish the personnel vetting mission.

Why GAO Did This Study

Personnel vetting helps protect the nation's interests by aiming to establish and maintain trust in the federal workforce. High-quality vetting processes can reduce the risk of unauthorized disclosure of classified information. In 2018 GAO placed the government-wide personnel security clearance process on its High-Risk List due to a lack of performance measures and issues with IT systems.

This report evaluates, among other things, the extent to which the PAC Principals have implemented Trusted Workforce 2.0; ODNI has formalized continuous evaluation and assessed program performance; and DOD has planned for the IT and workforce needed to support its personnel vetting mission. To conduct this work, GAO analyzed relevant documentation, interviewed officials from the agencies represented by the four PAC Principals, and collected and reviewed data on continuous evaluation. GAO also assessed information collected against GAO leading practices on performance measures and project schedules, and evaluated DOD's actions against a DOD instruction on workforce planning.

Recommendations

Congress should consider requiring the DNI to develop performance measures for CE. GAO is also making three recommendations, including that DOD revise the NBIS schedule to fully meet the characteristics of a reliable schedule and establish a milestone to complete strategic workforce planning. ODNI did not indicate whether it concurred with GAO's recommendations. DOD concurred with GAO's two recommendations to it.

Matter for Congressional Consideration

Matter Status Comments
Congress should consider requiring the Director of National Intelligence to develop continuous evaluation performance measures linked to goals to assess the performance of agencies' continuous evaluation programs, including measures to assess quality and the impact on resources. (Matter for Consideration 1)
Closed – Implemented
In December 2022, Congress passed the James M. Inhofe National Defense Authorization (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2023 wherein Congress required the Director of National Intelligence to develop measures to assess the performance of personnel vetting. In particular, section 6319 of the NDAA stated that the Director of National Intelligence, acting as the Security Executive Agent, and in coordination with the Chair and other principals of the Performance Accountability Council, develop performance measures to assess the vetting of personnel, including measures to assess continuous vetting and the quality of each phase of the personnel vetting process, including the initiation, investigation, and adjudication phases. The NDAA also stated that this action must take place no later than June 2023.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Office of the Director of National Intelligence
Priority Rec.
The Director of National Intelligence, in consultation with the Deputy Director for Management of the Office of Management and Budget, the Director of the Office of Personnel Management, and the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence and Security, should ensure that the Director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center develops performance measures for assessing the quality of all phases of the personnel security clearance process that align with the key attributes of successful performance measures. (Recommendation 1)
Closed – Implemented
In its comments, ODNI did not state whether it concurred with this recommendation. In November 2023, ODNI, in coordination with OPM, issued the Federal Personnel Vetting Performance Management Standards Implementation Guidance. The guidance included multiple measures to assess the quality of all phases of the personnel security clearance process. Further, these measures align with the key attributes of successful performance measures. These actions meet the intent of our recommendation.
Department of Defense
Priority Rec.
The Secretary of Defense should ensure that the Director of the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency revises the National Background Investigation Services system schedule to meet all the characteristics of a reliable schedule as defined in GAO's best practice guides for scheduling and Agile software development. (Recommendation 2)
Open
DOD concurred with this recommendation. In March 2022, the department stated that the NBIS Executive Program Manager had incorporated several best practices and estimated that the NBIS schedule would substantially meet all characteristics of a reliable schedule by April 2022. However, we reviewed the NBIS program schedule again and, as of February 2023, found that the program had not substantially met any of the characteristics of a reliable schedule. In October 2023, DOD provided an update stating that, due to new findings in our August 2023 report related to the NBIS schedule (GAO-23-105670), they are continuing to work through resolution of our findings and plan to complete an analysis by February 1, 2024, with implementation immediately following.
Department of Defense The Secretary of Defense should ensure that the Director of the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency establishes a milestone for completing strategic workforce planning and issues a strategic workforce plan for the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency's entire personnel vetting workforce. (Recommendation 3)
Closed – Implemented
DOD concurred with this recommendation. In August 2021, DOD stated that DCSA has an effort underway to implement our recommendation and that DCSA's strategic workforce plan will encompass its entire civilian workforce. In 2022, the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency established a milestone of September 2023 for completing its strategic workforce planning. As of February 2023, the agency had completed two of seven steps in its planning process- leadership interviews and competency workshops. It was also working on three additional steps: workforce data analysis, a competency assessment, and the development of mitigation strategies to address current and future workforce competency gaps and challenges. In September 2023, DCSA issued its strategic workforce plan for fiscal years 2024 through 2027, which meets the intent of our recommendation.

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Topics

Agency evaluationsBackground investigationsCriminal investigationsFederal workforceLabor forceNational securityPerformance measurementPersonnel managementPersonnel securityPersonnel security clearancesProgram managementWorkforce planning