2020 Management Excellence

Matthew C. Eanes

Helped lead the government’s efforts to shrink the enormous backlog of federal background investigations and designed the most comprehensive reform of the process in 60 years.

Listen to Matthew Eanes discuss his work:

The federal government’s background investigation process had fallen into complete disarray by early 2018, with a staggering backlog of more than 725,000 cases for all types of clearances, including 14 months or longer to get employees into critical top-secret intelligence, law enforcement and defense jobs. 

By late 2019, the backlog was reduced to about 200,000 cases, considered a normal rate given the constant flow of new applications into a system that processes more than 1.6 million cases per year. The timeframe for approving candidates for top secret jobs was slashed to an average of less than three months, while the approval process for other of types of security clearances also was shortened.  

At the same time, a separate effort was initiated to establish an entirely new vetting framework to further accelerate the investigative process and provide greater reliability and employee mobility. 

These dramatic changes were spearheaded by Matthew Eanes, the director of the Program Management Office supporting the Inter-Agency Performance Accountability Council. Eanes led experienced professionals from across the government to adopt a series of innovative recommendations that represent the most comprehensive changes in the federal security clearance process in six decades. 

Michael Rigas, the acting Office of Personnel Management director, said Eanes displayed “total command and mastery of every single issue, brought in experts who helped us question old assumptions, and laid out a framework and options for decision-making to reduce the backlog and institute a brand new system.”  

“His work will have a tremendous impact for decades on how the federal government does business,” Rigas said. “It will save us billions of dollars in terms of productivity because we will get people in jobs faster, while increasing security and reducing risk and the likelihood of bad results.” 

William R. Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Agency, said Eanes “coordinated more than 100 agency leaders and pushed us to think in different ways.” 

“In 24 years in the intelligence community, I have never seen anyone like Matt with the ability to prioritize and solve problems,” Evanina said. “His work has been transformational.” 

The security clearance problems began to mount after OPM stopped doing business with a contractor that suffered a major data breach in 2015. The switch to another contractor, and the loss of investigators, hindered the government’s ability to keep pace with the background checks, while efforts to hire and train new investigators took time. 

In 2015, Eanes became the deputy director of the government council coordinating the security clearance reforms and rose to director in December 2017. At that point, he and his team looked for new ways to reduce the backlog and began implementing long-term reforms. 

Eanes said backlog reductions were aided by having some low risk 5- and 10-year reinvestigations deferred if the individuals were enrolled into a continuous vetting process, which eliminated the need to conduct periodic reinvestigations. This freed up investigator capacity to focus on higher-risk cases and aided the long-term reform goals of shifting to a continuous vetting model that identifies risks as they occur.  

This continuous vetting process has been a major technology undertaking requiring routine checks of law enforcement databases and financial, travel and court records, among other records, to ensure cleared individuals have not developed problems that might put their security clearance in jeopardy. Another long-term fix involved reducing the number of investigative tiers from five to three—low risk, moderate risk and high risk—making the vetting process more clear-cut and streamlined. 

Eanes and his team also instituted other measures to speed background investigations. This included expedited closure of cases in which one item was holding up the review. For example, thousands of cases were closed for individuals waiting on determinations of whether they had registered with the Selective Service when, in fact, they were active duty military members.  

In addition, the backlog was narrowed by allowing investigators to save time by conducting telephone and video interviews in certain circumstances, and by raising the delinquent debt threshold that had been unnecessarily raising red flags. These changes are part of the permanent reform. 

These short- and long-term measures, along with other reforms still in progress, are now being administered by the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency, which took over the background investigation process from OPM in October 2019. 

Dustin Brown, the deputy assistant director for management at the Office of Management and Budget, said Eanes displayed “a clear vision, strong leadership skills and an understanding of technology and change management” in leading the reforms. 

“Matt came up with a new model that, over time, will allow for a workforce that can move from one agency to another without barriers, and that will increase the trust of the workforce because of more real-time information,” Brown said.  

Eanes said he sees himself as an “honest broker” with the job of improving a critical function of the government. “I feel very lucky. How often in one’s career do you get the opportunity to work on something with such impact and scale?” Eanes said. “I’m not catching the bad guys, but I’m but making it possible for others to do that through these new capabilities.”