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Need to know: streamlined clearance process pays off.


Every State Department employee probably has a horror story or two about the security clearance process. For many years, the process was slow and non-transparent. Indeed, it often took six to nine months to complete a background investigation. Such delays often resulted in new hires seeking employment elsewhere and daily complaints from Department senior management.

Today, thanks to reforms initiated by the Bureau of Diplomatic Security's Office of Personnel Security and Suitability, the process has been transformed into a highly efficient, award-winning program.

On average, PSS processes more than 25,000 background investigations each year, and that workload has been growing exponentially. On any given day, PSS opens an average of 100 new cases while completing thousands of other pending investigative leads.

Despite this high volume, the clearance process has improved steadily since November 2004, when a background investigation averaged 122 days to complete. Today, an investigation is completed within an average of 65 days, with interim clearances issued within two weeks. PSS now processes 15 percent more cases per year than in 2004 in 40 percent less time and at $113 less per unit.

Much of this success is due to PSS's use of automation. PSS's deployment of the Office of Personnel Management's electronic Questionnaires for Investigations Processing application--the electronic version of the Standard Form 86 Questionnaire for National Security Positions--allows users, once their information is entered into the system, to easily update their SF-86 security forms at the time of their five-year reinvestigation. The e-QIP system also provides case managers with more rapid access to applicant data. This reduces the likelihood of "fat-fingering" errors in paper documents. In fact, PSS has developed such efficiency with the e-QIP process that it has mentored other agencies, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Drug Enforcement Administration, in using the online system.

In addition, PSS automated its investigative processes with the implementation of the online Report Management System, a Web-based program that provides all authorized users with real-time access to pending investigations.

Further, to improve the efficiency of database checks at other agencies, PSS recently entered into a memorandum of agreement with the FBI and the Terrorist Screening Center that allows PSS employees to work at those locations and assist in reducing the backlog of their background checks. To see how this arrangement has improved the process, consider that in July 2007 there were 1,300 cases pending FBI file reviews. Today, that backlog has been reduced by 86 percent to 180 pending cases.

PSS's new business practices have greatly improved background investigation processing times despite the increasing volume of new hires, while also meeting the most immediate Departmental hiring needs. For example, all contractors working for the Department in the high-priority posts of Iraq and Afghanistan are vetted by PSS, which now investigates and adjudicates those cases within an average of 52 days.

PSS responded last summer when the Bureau of Consular Affairs was under pressure to reduce a backlog in the processing and issuance of passports. In response, the Department hired more than 423 new employees and 2,675 contractors, but before they could begin work, all had to undergo a background investigation by PSS. From June to October 2007, PSS investigators reviewed thousands of clearance applications, interviewed more than 20,000 references and successfully conducted 2,716 background investigations, permitting CA to augment its workforce. CA reduced the passport backlog by September 2007.


PSS also granted 1,087 interim clearances from May through October 2007, which allowed employees to be hired while their clearances were being finalized. Average processing time for these background investigations was just 58 days for employees and 41 days for contractors.


PSS has garnered several awards in recognition of these successes. In November 2005, DS honored PSS Director James C. Onusko with its Diplomatic Security Employee of the Year award for helping turn DS's security-clearance process into one of the fastest and most efficient within the federal government.

In October 2006, PSS was recognized as the top security and suitability office in the federal government with the Office of Personnel Management Guardian Award, given for PSS's innovative and cost-effective approach to conducting personnel security investigations.

In October 2007, the White House named DS Senior Coordinator for Security Infrastructure Donald R. Reid, whose office oversees PSS operations, a winner of the 2007 Meritorious Senior Professionals and Executives Presidential Rank Award. The White House cited Reid's leadership in transforming the security clearance process into a transparent, customer-centered, Web-based system.

As the threat environment necessitates tighter government security, the number of individuals needing clearances to conduct government business will likely continue to rise. The PSS team stands ready to tackle that challenge.

The author is the Web site manager and a writer in the DS Public Affairs Office.

Case Volume, 2003-2009

 Number of Cases

2003 20,286

2004 20,559

2005 22,485

2006 22,070

2007 23,569

2008 24,500

2009 25,250

Note: Cases for 2008 and 2009 are estimated

Note: Table made from bar graph.
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Author:Bates, David
Publication:State Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2008
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