Evolve for Government: Transformation in Government: How DCSA is Expediting the Security Clearance Process
National Security requires cleared resources. The backlog of unprocessed clearances was once at 725,000, with waits of over 500 days for some personnel. Congress also authorized the Department of Defense (DoD) to assume responsibility for background investigations in 2018. As the National Background Investigations Bureau (NBIB) merged with the newly created Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency (DCSA), the government embarked on a digital transformation with the development of the National Background Investigation System (NBIS). Along with industry partners and foundational technologies from Pega and others, DCSA has driven the backlog to a steady state and is evolving a continuous vetting process to better support the mission with enhanced vetting, faster investigation times, and improved mobility. In this virtual interview session, hear how the U.S. government is driving change and realizing better outcomes.
- Hello, my name is Cindi Stuebner, and I'm the Defense Business Line Director at Pega Systems. Today I'm joined by Geoff Hart, Agreements Officer, from the Defense, Counterintelligence, and Security Agency. We're here to talk a bit about the development and phased rollout of the National Background Investigation System, and its contribution to the long-term efforts of digital transformation. Geoff, thanks so much for being here today.
- You're very welcome, I'm so glad to be here.
- Let's get started by discussing your role with NBIS.
- Sure, I am one of the Agreement Officer Representatives for DCSA. That means I work with the technical team to manage the contractual relationship between the agency and its vendors. In this particular case, I work with Perspecta as the prime and Pega and the rest of the team for the National Background Investigative Service. At DCSA, our mission is to provide personal vetting, industrial security engagement, counter-intelligence support, and education. Essentially, we establish the trustworthiness of the United States government's workforce, the integrity of its cleared contractor support, and the uncompromised nature of its technologies, services, and supply chains.
- Thank you. Your mission and vision are really relevant to our discussion about digital transformation. So can you talk a little bit about how NBIS was conceived and evolved to an actual program?
- Sure, well, back in October of 2016, I was at DISA, I've since transferred as part of an agency reorganization to DCSA, and we were tasked with building a new IT platform. The program's goal is to continually migrate to a new system in an iterative fashion, so as we could ensure a secure platform with flexibility to adapt to both new technologies, as well as new policy changes. These changes would include additional information gathering sources and streamlined methods for reporting, as well as managing the cases from end-to-end to ensure accuracy and completion. So, we started by using an OTA process, an Other Transaction Authority process, to engage with industry and see what the art of the possible was through prototyping. Through this competitive process, we identified a team, led by Perspecta, and including technologies, such as Pega Government Platform, as a path forward to build this initial version of NBIS.
- Thanks for the summary. For those of us who have had, or currently have a security clearance, this really does hit close to home. So you mentioned the OTA process, that comes up a lot in government acquisition circles when talking about prototypes and new systems, did that make a big difference with NBIS?
- Oh, it certainly did. We chose to use the OTA process, not only because it was faster than traditional acquisition processes, but it was different than the normal acquisition process. We were looking to build an enterprise level system that had a continuous authority to operate within a secure cloud environment. These are things that just weren't done much across government. Fundamentally, NBIS was envisioned to replace and modernize the existing systems being used for the investigative process. So, it's not just about building a new system, but it's about modernizing that process as well. The OTA process allowed us to engage with the Perspecta mission partners during the acquisition process. This ensured that the government understood what the technology was capable of doing, and it really helped make sure that these potential mission partners knew what we were truly requiring.
- That does sound like a transformation. So what are some of the things that have been modernized or changed with NBIS so far?
- Well, since the start of the program, we've been able to address some of the key activities that traditionally slow down an investigation to make them more efficient. For example, by applying sophisticated business rules, the system is able to consolidate investigative items within a geographic region. This, in turn, reduces the need for investigators to visit the same place over and over again. We've also been improving the way that an applicant applies for a background investigation, effectively, replacing the e-QIP System. The electronic questionnaire is built with a number of checks in it for data entry to ensure the accuracy of the form before it's even submitted. This reduces the number of errors that happen within processes, which ends up impacting the amount of time it takes to process a clearance. You can imagine, the more errors you have to correct and address, the longer it takes for an adjudication to be completed.
- That is very significant. Let's go back to something that you mentioned earlier. With NBIS you were working to not only build a new system, but improve the process as well, is that correct?
- That's correct.
- So I mention that again, because it's one of the big benefits of a true intelligent automation system that we discuss with our customers. Because, if you automate a bad process, it's not very helpful in the end, but if you use the technology to its full potential, you can not only automate manual processes, but you can improve the process at the same time. So, it sounds like that's what your goal was with NBIS, and it also sounds like you're realizing some success. So, what's next with NBIS?
- Well, we are working to finish up our release 2.5, which will soon go into user acceptance testing, which we can then go through and get to production. But we're not stopping there, we're gonna continually use our agile development processes to develop new releases on a quarterly basis. These releases will have potentially releasable software to go into user acceptance, and then be promoted into our production environment, so we're constantly able to insert new technologies, change processes as they evolve, and make the system better for our customers and our applicants.
- So, it sounds like you're on the cusp of some very significant transformations in how the government handles security clearances, and with such an important mission, it really is a terrific story. So, I have one final question. Is there any one thing, or several things, that are important, you think are important, for people to know about how to be successful with a transformation like this, since you've been part of one at DCSA? Are there any lessons learned to pass along?
- Oh, there are several lessons we have learned along the way. The first, I would argue, that the OTA process can not only expedite things, that's pretty obvious, but it was really, really helpful for us to see our ideas being formed in conjunction with the potential vendors. The OTA process allowed us to have open discussions and even demonstrations of proposed technological solutions. This helped us to be more specific, in terms of what we wanted and helped us understand what was possible. You know, that phrase, the art of the possible, does ring so true within an OTA. There was no substitute to seeing our ideas come to life in real time. The other is the agile development process. It's really been helpful for us to implement in this phased approach while building NBIS. We've had to be really careful on how we move forward, so with the agile phased approach, we're able to build something, take a look at it, see where we need to make minor adjustments, and make those adjustments, before any challenges or difficulties become too cumbersome.
- Well, on behalf of Pega, I wanna say thank you so much for your time today, Geoff. I can't tell you how excited we are to be part of this project and to be making a difference in the transformation. And we're very excited to be in partnership with you as the journey continues. And thank you to everyone for joining us and have a terrific rest of your day.
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