GAO-12-342SP: General government: 11. Personnel Background Investigations

General government > 11. Personnel Background Investigations

The Office of Management and Budget should take action to prevent agencies from making potentially duplicative investments in electronic case management and adjudication systems.

Why This Area Is Important

The federal government spent over $1 billion to conduct more than 2 million personnel background investigations for government employees in fiscal year 2011. The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) conducts the majority of these investigations for federal agencies including the Department of Defense (DOD). DOD requests more investigations from OPM than any other federal agency and received over 788,000 background investigations that cost over $787 million in fiscal year 2011. Agencies use electronic case management systems to identify employees who need investigations and monitor the status of investigations. In addition, agencies use electronic adjudication systems to store records of the decisions that officials make based on investigations, such as whether an applicant is suitable for federal employment, and in some cases, whether the applicant is eligible for a security clearance, enabling him or her to access classified information.

In light of long-standing delays in completing these processes and other concerns, Congress set objectives and established requirements for improving aspects of the personnel security clearance process in the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004.[1] Among other things, the act established requirements for reciprocity—an agency’s acceptance of a background investigation or clearance determination completed by any authorized investigative or adjudicative agency, subject to certain exceptions. When agencies do not reciprocally accept a background investigation or clearance determination completed by another agency, government resources may be used inefficiently to conduct duplicative investigations and adjudications. To meet the objectives laid out in the act and oversee reforms of the employment suitability and security clearance eligibility processes, DOD and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence established the Joint Security Clearance Process Reform Team (Joint Reform Team) in 2007. In 2008, the President issued an executive order[2] to ensure an efficient, practical, reciprocal, and aligned system for the suitability and security processes, among other things. The order (1) established a Suitability and Security Clearance Performance Accountability Council, which is accountable to the President to achieve the goals of reform (2) designated the Deputy Director for Management at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) as the chair of the Council; and (3) outlined the responsibilities of the Council, which include establishing requirements for enterprise information technology. Since 2008, the Joint Reform Team under the guidance of the Performance Accountability Council has encouraged agencies to automate their paper-based case management and adjudication systems by using electronic systems.[3]



[1]Pub. L. No. 108-458 (2004) (codified at 50 U.S.C. § 435b).

[2]Exec. Order No. 13467, Reforming Processes Related to Suitability for Government Employment, Fitness for Contractor Employees, and Eligibility for Access to Classified National Security Information (June 30, 2008).

[3]The Performance Accountability Council is currently comprised of representatives from 11 executive branch agencies, including DOD and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

What GAO Found

Multiple agencies have invested in or are beginning to invest in potentially duplicative, electronic case management and adjudication systems despite governmentwide reform effort goals that agencies leverage existing technologies to reduce duplication and enhance reciprocity. The governmentwide reform effort, led by the Performance Accountability Council, has resulted in progress in reducing delays in the amounts of time needed to conduct investigations and adjudicate clearances. Additionally, the Joint Reform Team, under the Performance Accountability Council’s leadership, set as a goal in its information technology strategy that agencies will leverage existing systems to reduce duplication and enhance reciprocity.

However, of the agencies that GAO reviewed, GAO found that since 2007 three agencies—DOD, the Department of Justice (Justice), and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have each developed and implemented their own electronic systems for case management and adjudication. In addition, GAO identified three other agencies—the National Reconnaissance Office,[1] the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the Department of the Treasury—that are beginning to invest in new systems that may duplicate the systems that DOD, Justice, and DHS have already implemented. Moreover, OPM officials told GAO that OPM plans to develop a new electronic case management and adjudication system. See the table below for the agencies GAO identified that have developed or are planning to develop their own electronic systems for case management and adjudication and the amounts those agencies have invested as of fiscal year 2011.

Agency Investments in Electronic Systems That Have Potentially Duplicative Capabilities for Case Management and Adjudication

Agency

Status

Investment as of FY11

Department of Defense

Completed

$32 million

Department of Justice

Completed

15 million

Department of Homeland Security

Completed

6.5 million

National Reconnaissance Office

In development

6.8 million

Department of Veterans Affairs

In development

900,000

Department of the Treasury

In development

300,000a

Office of Personnel Management

Planned

Unknown

Source: GAO.

aAccording to officials at the Department of the Treasury, the agency seeks $300,000 to fund its system.

According to DOD officials, DOD has intended to share the technology for its case management and adjudication system with other agencies since it developed its system. According to Department of Energy officials, the agency piloted a part of DOD’s system in 2010 and it is still considering whether to implement it. In addition, DOD officials told GAO that the Social Security Administration plans to use DOD’s system. DOD officials estimate that to implement the DOD system, agencies would need to invest approximately $300,000, in addition to any expenses agencies could incur if they chose to customize DOD’s system to meet specific needs. Furthermore, DOD officials estimate that agencies may need to spend approximately $100,000 per year for long-term support and maintenance of the system. Likewise, OPM officials told GAO that OPM plans to share the technology for any case management and adjudication system that it develops with the agencies that request investigations from OPM.

However, the Performance Accountability Council has not developed specific governmentwide guidance regarding how agencies should leverage existing technologies to prevent agencies from making duplicative investments in electronic case management and adjudication systems. As a result, individual agencies can decide to develop their own new systems without evaluating whether utilizing an existing system would be a more cost-effective approach. Since it was established, the Performance Accountability Council and the Joint Reform Team have issued several reports detailing reform-related plans, including a Strategic Framework in February 2010. The Strategic Framework established goals, performance measures, roles and responsibilities, and proposed metrics for determining the quality of security clearance investigations and adjudications. However, the Council did not include specific guidance in the Strategic Framework about how agencies might leverage existing technologies. Without specific guidance regarding how agencies should leverage existing technologies, agencies may miss opportunities to avoid duplicative investments in electronic systems for case management and adjudication.



[1]While the National Reconnaissance Office is an agency within DOD, it is beginning to invest in an electronic system distinct from DOD’s system.

Actions Needed

GAO recommended in February 2012 that OMB’s Deputy Director for Management, in his capacity as Chair of the Performance Accountability Council, should

  • develop additional guidance to help ensure that reform stakeholders identify opportunities for preventing duplication in the development of electronic case management and adjudication technologies in the suitability determination and personnel security clearance processes.

The federal government may realize multiple potential benefits from taking the actions GAO describes, including improved reciprocity and cost savings by preventing duplication of investments in electronic systems. Agencies that operate the same electronic systems for case management and adjudication may be able to share records of personnel background investigations with one another more easily, which may improve reciprocity and result in cost savings by using existing investigations rather than paying for new ones to be conducted.

How GAO Conducted Its Work

The information contained in this analysis is based on findings from the products listed in the related GAO products listed below. GAO selected agencies to review that meet a combination of one or more of the following criteria: (1) utilizes OPM to conduct most of its security clearance investigations for civilians, military, and industrial (contractor) personnel; (2) ranks among OPM’s top 10 largest investigation customers, by volume and/or by total expenditures in fiscal year 2010; and (3) is a member of the Performance Accountability Council. GAO also reviewed selected additional agencies that are developing or planning to develop an electronic system for case management and adjudication. GAO then interviewed knowledgeable officials at each of these agencies about the status of and their plans for investments in electronic systems for case management and adjudication.

Agency Comments & GAO Contact

GAO provided a draft of its February 2012 report to OMB for review and comment. OMB agreed with GAO’s recommendation that OMB develop additional guidance to help ensure that reform stakeholders identify opportunities for preventing duplication in the development of electronic case management and adjudication technologies in the suitability determination and personnel security clearance processes. As part of its routine audit work, GAO will track the extent to which progress has been made to address the identified actions and report to Congress.

For additional information about this area, contact Brenda Farrell at (202) 512-3604 or farrellb@gao.gov.

Related Products

High-Risk Series: An Update
http://gao.gov/products/GAO-11-278

GAO-11-278: Published: Feb 16, 2011. Publicly Released: Feb 16, 2011.
High-Risk Series: An Update
http://gao.gov/products/GAO-09-271

GAO-09-271: Published: Jan 22, 2009. Publicly Released: Jan 22, 2009.