Pentagon Seeks Agile Fix for Federal Security Clearance Backlog

January 4, 2019 Chris Cornillie

The current backlog of security clearance applications has prompted the Defense Department to seek out industry partners skilled in Agile development methods. The Pentagon wants a contractor to take over management of a new IT system designed to streamline the process for performing background investigations.

According to a request for information released in late December, the Pentagon is looking for vendors to provide “Continuous Development, Operations, and Support” for a soon-to-be-established program executive office that will serve as a governmentwide clearinghouse for security clearance investigations.

This comes as the Quantico, Virginia-based Defense Security Service, or DSS, prepares to take ownership of the process, absorbing responsibilities from the Office of Personnel Management as part of the Trump administration’s ongoing restructuring efforts.

The contractor’s primary responsibility will be to manage and scale newly developed IT platforms designed to automate aspects of the security clearance process, known as the National Background Investigation System, or NBIS.

(Scott McIntyre/Bloomberg)
The Defense Department plans to leverage Agile development and new technology to automate parts of the investigation process.

The solicitation requests information on vendors’ capabilities to provide support services and training for government end users, cybersecurity services to safeguard personal data stored in the system, and risk management and quality assurance functions. However, the RFI’s primary focus is on vendors’ experience applying Agile methods and tools to continuously deliver new software using short iterations, or “sprints.”

“We’ll be releasing new capabilities approximately every three months,” said NBIS program manager Heidi Cotter in a Dec. 18 statement. “We look forward to delivering a comprehensive capability that will modernize the entire background investigation system that can support not only the DOD but also other federal agencies.”

The government has yet to outline its acquisition strategy for Continuous Development, Operations, and Support or specify a ceiling value. Interested parties have until Jan. 18 to respond to the RFI.

Taking a Bite Out of the Backlog

The deployment of the NBIS in fiscal 2019 may mark a turning point in the way the government handles background investigations by shifting from periodic reassessments to a more automated, “continuous evaluation” approach.

In the past, OPM manually reassessed each clearance holder every five to 10 years, a time-consuming process that hampered its ability to vet new candidates. By April 2018, the backlog of security clearance applications pending a background check had reached an all-time high of 725,000.

However, that figure fell below 600,000 by December as the Pentagon assumed management of its own background checks and began to automate aspects of the process. In Dec. 12 testimony before the House Armed Services, Garry Reid, a senior Pentagon official specializing in intelligence and counterintelligence, described NBIS as a “critical enabler,” praising the role of automation in reducing the security clearance backlog and mitigating security risks.

“Our progress to-date would not have been possible without the robust continuous evaluation and automated records capabilities built over the past three years,” he said. These methods “significantly decrease the risk associated with periodic reinvestigations” and “have shown convincing results for early detection of security risks,” he added.

Reid said that DSS plans to expand the continuous evaluation program from the 1.1 million personnel currently enrolled to the entire population eligible for access to classified information by fiscal 2021 – about 4 million as of October 2017.

Others are more skeptical. “The current backlog and wait times add risk to government missions, contract performance, and the ability of both the government and contractors to recruit and hire the talent we need,” wrote David Berteau, president of the Professional Services Council, a Washington D.C. area group representing government contractors.

PSC and three other industry groups expressed support for legislation introduced by Sen. Mark Warner (D-Virginia) intended to streamline the security clearance process and promote continuous vetting practices. Warner’s bill did not pass in the Senate before the end of the 115th Congress, requiring that it be reintroduced in 2019.

What’s Ahead

In the coming months, the White House is expected to issue an executive orderformalizing DSS’s responsibilities for the governmentwide security clearance program and outlining a plan to merge its workforce and departmental assets with OPM’s National Background Investigations Bureau. According to a November report, the Pentagon plans to rename the combined organization the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency.

It’s likely that most of the restructuring will take place over the next two to three years. This gives DSS plenty of time to craft an acquisition strategy for its Continuous Development, Operations, and Support contract and issue an award by the end of fiscal 2020. Contractors should expect at least one industry day, at least one draft RFP, and a highly competitive contract.

Perspecta Inc., the Chantilly, Virginia-based Hewlett Packard spinoff, may be the presumptive front-runner. In June 2018, the Pentagon issued Perspecta a $49 million “other transaction” agreement (OTA) to build the prototype for a crucial piece of NBIS: its case management system.

Perspecta also holds one of four OPM contracts for clearance-related investigative field work through its subsidiary KeyPoint Government Solutions Inc., a contract that has generated $720 million since September 2016. The other three contracts are held by CACI International Inc. ($260 million), General Dynamics Corp. ($204 million), and Securitas AB ($167 million). All four contracts are set to expire at the end of fiscal 2021.

Chris Cornillie is a federal market analyst with Bloomberg Government.

To contact the analyst on this story: Chris Cornillie in Washington at ccornillie@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Daniel Snyder at dsnyder@bgov.com; Jodie Morris at jmorris@bgov.com

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