NBIB to Merge with DoD – Will the Security Backlog Finally Disappear?

By October 1st of 2019, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) will be dissolved with its various functions transferring to other U.S agencies, thanks to an executive order signed by the President in April.

While some have found the move perplexing (“out of the blue” as one columnist put it), OPM employees and management have anticipated it since late last year, when the Department of Defense (DoD) pressured legislators to approve the transfer of clearance investigations to itself.

The DoD will get its wish, with the transfer breaking down like so:

  • The majority of OPM functions related to HR and IT will be taken over by the General Services Administration (GSA)
  • The OPM’s National Background Investigations Bureau (NBIB) will be absorbed by the DoD’s Defense Security Service (DSS), soon to be rebranded as the ‘Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency’ (DCSA)
  • Several policy employees within the OPM will be transferred to the executive branch, where they will work in the office of the President

The executive order establishes a short timeframe for the transfer, which involves 10,000 jobs in the NBIB alone, and 3,500 other OPM employees collectively responsible for a nearly 2.1 million civilian workforce. NBIB director Charlie Phalen, however, is optimistic about a seamless transition, stating: “Our absolute goal is…On Oct. 2, when you wake up, all you can tell is we have a different t-shirt on.”

While some doubt that the process will occur without setbacks, it is already well underway, with the Defense Secretary and OPM due to sign an agreement on June 4th finalizing details of the transfer.

Will We Finally Fix the Clearance Backlog?

For many years the OPM has struggled to approve security clearances in a timely manner, leading to calls for reform and longstanding frustration from federal security officials. As of this year, the backlog stands at 459,000 cases, though it has steadily been shrinking with public pressure and the acquisition of new investigators.

This year the government has made a clear priority of cracking down on the clearance process, with joint efforts between the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), DoD, and OPM to develop new standards for vetting personnel with Trusted Workforce 2.0. Although not explicitly stated in the executive order, this priority reflects a likely rationale for the OPM’s dissolution.

Until the responsibility was consolidated by the OPM in 2004, the DoD handled its own background investigations through the DSS, which still acts as a liaison between the OPM and DoD. As such the transition represents a return to the old structure of federal background investigations, with the benefit of technological developments which have occurred during the interim.

It has long been proposed that machine learning (ML), artificial intelligence (AI) and modern data infrastructure could expedite the clearance process. Earlier this year, the DoD unveiled a new AI strategy, suggesting that these proposals could finally become a reality. But with limited information about the DoD’s acquisition strategy – until October – only time will tell.

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