The federal security clearance system is killing innovation

The federal security clearance system is killing innovation
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Imagine that you are an engineer seeking your dream job. After polishing your resume and cover letter, digging through job postings, countless networking coffees, and several rounds of interviews, you finally get the job offer. “Congratulations!” the hiring manager says, “we are very excited to have you aboard. In this job, you will build the tools to keep America safe and secure. We can’t wait for you to get started right after Valentine’s Day of 2019!”

Wait, what?

This may seem like a cruel joke, but the backlog of employees waiting for security clearances has made this situation a reality.


The National Background Investigations Bureau (NBIB) has a backlog of more than 700,000 investigation applications. This severe backlog prevents defense officials, diplomats and intelligence officers from being able to do their jobs. This year, the process for a top secret security clearance took more than 450 days to conclude, more than a half-year longer than it took in April of 2016; and there is no indication that the timeline is getting shorter.


Along with the national security risks, the current backlog poses a serious financial problem. Instead of employees with specialized skills in cybersecurity, engineering, or foreign languages waiting the 450 days for clearance, they are taking alternative employment, which robs the government of the best talent. If a company chooses to hire and pay an employee while waiting for a pending clearance determination, the overhead can run to six figures for a single employee. These overhead costs ultimately get passed on in government contracts, forcing taxpayers to pick up the tab.

These challenges are exaggerated for smaller firms. As the founder of a company focused on bringing innovative technology companies into the federal government, I have witnessed this first-hand. The clearance backlog prohibits many emerging technology firms from even considering the pursuit government contracts due to the large overhead cost of holding a staffing ‘bench’. They instead shift their talent to other customers that move more quickly. Not only does this impact these firms and the government, but it also impacts the large prime contractors that are looking to partner with smaller, more innovative companies.

In short, the clearance process is severely hurting government innovation.

Fixing the problem

There are steps that can be taken right away to begin to reduce the backlog. First, all agencies should immediately grant reciprocity across the government regardless of the agency that holds the clearance. As a former government contractor with the Department of Homeland Security, I have personal experience with the difficulty of having my clearance passed from one agency to the next even though they were a part of the same cabinet-level Department. Second, NBIB should switch from a “first-in/first-out” system in favor of a new structure that processes low-risk and simpler clearances separately from more intensive investigations. This would dramatically reduce the backlog for low-risk clearances and get these individuals to work faster.

Once those immediate steps have been taken, NBIB must take important longer-term steps. The first is to ensure that the necessary cybersecurity protections are in place to prevent the breaches that cause massive delays in conducting investigations. Once those protections are in place, NBIB can make the investigations process more effective, as well as more efficient, by performing a continuous evaluation of high-risk clearance factors such as credit anomalies, excess foreign travel, or unusual contact with foreign nationals. The director of the NBIB, Charles Phalen, Jr. has endorsed the idea of instituting  continuous evaluation programs. A related step is to adjust reinvestigations based on risk factors, extending the reinvestigation period for low-risk clearance holders.

Lastly, the government should consider reviewing emerging technology solutions that can support faster, and in some cases, more accurate vetting of personnel. This may include technologies such as identify verification tools, artificial intelligence, process automation, secure mobility, and more.

Congress and the administration must act

The good news is that Congress has started to pay attention. Rep. Steve Knight (R-Calif.) said, “too many skilled Americans are sitting around waiting for the federal government to approve their clearances to start working to protect our national security.”

The administration must act now to streamline the process and provide the resources and the policy directives needed to fix the problem. Congress must ensure that the funding for conducting investigations is protected in the budget, along with constant pressure to fix the backlog. Failure to do so means that we will go on wasting millions of taxpayer dollars and leaving countless critical projects stalled.  

Meagan Metzger is the founder and CEO of Dcode, an accelerator program for innovative technology companies entering the federal government marketplace.