Workstreet now supports ISO 42001 compliance → Learn more
July 9, 2024

Navigating the ATO Process: A Primer for Businesses

Demystifying the ATO process: Learn about types, steps, timelines, and tips for obtaining federal Authority to Operate. Discover how Workstreet can streamline your compliance journey.
Written by:
Travis Good
Header image

At Workstreet, we've helped numerous companies build and scale their security and compliance programs. One crucial aspect of compliance for businesses working with the federal government is obtaining an Authority to Operate (ATO). In this blog post, we'll demystify the ATO process and provide insights on how to navigate it successfully.

What is an ATO?

An Authority to Operate (ATO) is a formal declaration that authorizes a system to process information. It's a critical component of the federal government's approach to managing cybersecurity risk. The ATO process ensures that systems meet security requirements before they're allowed to operate within a federal agency's environment.

Why is an ATO Important?

For businesses looking to work with federal agencies, obtaining an ATO is often a prerequisite. It demonstrates that your system has undergone rigorous security assessment and that any risks have been identified and mitigated to an acceptable level.

Types of ATOs

There are several types of ATOs that businesses may encounter in the federal space:

  1. Full ATO: This is the standard, comprehensive authorization that indicates a system has met all security requirements and is approved for operation for a specified period (typically up to three years).
  2. Conditional ATO: Granted when a system meets most but not all security requirements. It allows operation with the condition that remaining issues will be addressed within a specified timeframe.
  3. Temporary ATO: Also known as an Interim Authority to Test (IATT), this authorization is granted for a limited time to allow for testing and evaluation of a system in a live environment.
  4. Ongoing Authorization: A relatively new approach where a system is continuously monitored and assessed, potentially eliminating the need for periodic reauthorization.

Understanding these different types of ATOs is crucial as it can impact your timeline for system deployment and the resources needed to maintain compliance. The type of ATO you pursue will depend on your system's readiness, the agency's requirements, and the specific use case for your technology.

The ATO Process: A Five-Step Overview

Much like an other audit, the ATO process can be broken down into the following steps.

  1. Determine the System's Security Impact Level: This involves assessing the potential impact of a security breach on your system's confidentiality, integrity, and availability.
  2. Develop a System Security and Privacy Plan (SSPP): This comprehensive document outlines how your system operates and the security measures in place.
  3. Undergo Assessment: Expert evaluators will verify your documentation and look for potential vulnerabilities.
  4. Obtain ATO Approval: After review, the Authorizing Official (AO) signs off on the remaining risk.
  5. Implement Continuous Monitoring: Create a Plan of Action and Milestones (POA&M) to maintain and improve security over time.

Estimated Timeline for the ATO Process

While the duration of the ATO process can vary depending on the complexity of your system and the specific agency requirements, here's a general timeline to help you plan:

  1. Preparation Phase: 1-3 monthssome text
    • Determining security impact level: 1-2 weeks
    • Developing SSPP: 2-8 weeks
  2. Assessment Phase: 2-4 monthssome text
    • Security controls assessment: 4-8 weeks
    • Vulnerability scanning and penetration testing: 2-4 weeks
  3. Authorization Phase: 1-2 monthssome text
    • Review of assessment results: 2-4 weeks
    • ATO decision: 2-4 weeks
  4. Post-Authorization: Ongoingsome text
    • Continuous monitoring and maintenance

Total estimated time: 4-9 months

Note that this timeline can be shorter or longer based on various factors, including your team's preparedness, the complexity of your system, and the agency's workload. Starting early and staying proactive throughout the process can help minimize delays and ensure a smoother ATO journey.

Alternatively, if you want to cut this timeline in half, Workstreet can help you do it.

Tips for a Successful ATO Process

  1. Start Early: Begin the ATO process as soon as possible. It can be time-consuming, and delays could impact your ability to work with federal agencies.
  2. Communicate Effectively: Maintain open lines of communication with the assessment team and IT leadership. Building trust is crucial.
  3. Be Thorough: Ensure your documentation is detailed and accurate. This not only helps in obtaining the ATO but also serves as a valuable resource in case of audits.
  4. Stay Updated: Keep your systems and software up-to-date. Regularly address any identified security risks.
  5. Seek Expert Help: Consider partnering with experienced MSPs like Workstreet to guide you through the process and ensure compliance.

Why use Workstreet to obtain your ATO?

Unlike a software solution, like Second Front, that needs to be implemented and managed, Workstreet manages and runs the entire process of obtaining and maintaining ATO for you. Some key benefits of using Workstreet for your ATO:

  1. Speed. Most companies spend 6-12 months getting an ATO. Our customers have obtained an ATO in 2-4 months.
  2. Cost. We are a fraction of the cost of software or services solutions.
  3. Expertise. The Workstreet team has built and scaled programs to achieve ATOs, and other certifications, for 100s of customers.
  4. Experience. We've done this. And have the glowing customer references and case studies to prove it.
  5. Modern tech. Do you use the cloud? Operate a remote company? At Workstreet, we understand your business and will ensure that not looking like a typical government contractor does not block your ATO.


While the ATO process may seem daunting, it's an essential step in ensuring the security and compliance of systems operating within federal environments. At Workstreet, we've helped numerous businesses successfully navigate this process. Remember, an ATO isn't just a  hurdle – it's an opportunity to thoroughly assess and improve your system's security, ultimately benefiting your business and your clients.

If you're looking to obtain an ATO or improve your overall security and compliance posture, don't hesitate to reach out to Workstreet. Our team of experts is ready to help you build and scale your security and compliance programs effectively.