The security clearance woes of this administration have been in the spotlight recently. So, it’s no surprise that the White House is considering a major overhaul of a significant function– –the entire background investigation program.
Mick Mulvaney, Office of Management and Budget Director, met with officials from the Office of Director of National Intelligence, the Defense Department, and the Office of Personnel Management to discuss another potential change in personnel security, the third in 18 months.
“The administration is committed to transforming the way in which background investigations are conducted to improve timeliness, to best protect our most sensitive information, and ensure a trusted workforce,” OMB and OPM said in a joint statement. “The administration is actively analyzing the government impacts of current plans for DOD to assume responsibility for its own investigations and will soon make a decision on the future of the government-wide program that is consistent with our efforts to improve the overall effectiveness and efficiency of government.”
The 2018 National Defense Authorization Act paved the way for the DOD to take back control of its own investigations, a job it held it held in 2005 when the program was moved to OPM in response to cost overruns, major delays, and a large backlog. Congress has already approved the workload shift back to DOD, however, some members have questioned the redundancy with the 2 programs—OPM’s National Background Investigations Bureau and Defense—performing the same functions for different government customers.
The White House shares this concern and is weighing the option to move the entire background investigations program to Defense. “The frequency of change and the willingness to allow politics versus history to drive decision making continues to undermine a program struggling to find solid terra firma to build a plan that would address the backlog of over 725,000 background investigations,” Merton Miller, former deputy director of NBIB said.
Another concern with both OPM and Defense conducting background investigations is that both agencies struggle to hire and maintain an investigator workforce. NBIB currently employs more than 7,200 contract and federal background investigators. Hiring, training, and retaining those investigators is a major cause of the current delays and backlogs.
The program began in 2014 when OPM decided to cancel its contract with U.S. Investigation Services after a cyber-attack compromised government worker files. That decision resulted in a 65% reduction in investigation capacity overnight. If the White House decides to transfer NBIB functions to Defense, there’s also a question of whether the bureau’s 7,200 investigators will make the move as well.
New Focus at OPM
In addition to proposals to eliminate OPM’s background investigation functions, there’s another proposal to move OPM’s Human Resources Solutions, which provides HR services to agencies on a consulting basis to the General Services Administration. Moving 2 major divisions would cut OPM’s mission by 25%.
Because OPM shares administrative functions across programs, the decision to move these programs would have an immediate impact on the budget, workforce, and influence of OPM.
Some agencies that conduct their own investigations would likely remain independent—including CIA, FBI, and State Department. But Defense would move into a service-provider role for a variety of other agencies that depend on NBIB as their service provider.
“The dependence every federal agency and the department will have on DOD will have a devastating impact on their ability to influence policy, affect performance, and ensure program transparency,” Miller said.