Is the security clearance process keeping diverse candidates from fed jobs?

Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines has made diversity hiring and retention a priority.

Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines has made diversity hiring and retention a priority. Imagezoo/Getty Images

There are very human, and very distinct elements to making the cut as a national security worker.

There are many paths to a national security career but virtually all of them entail the need to fill out some form of 100-plus page questionnaire for national security positions. Some involve the further step of a polygraph examination. 

And while the process is meant to be applied universally (with the same adjudicative guidelines around eligibility to access classified information), as anyone who has applied with multiple agencies knows, there are very human, and very distinct elements to obtaining a security clearance and making the cut as a national security worker.

A recent Washington Post article highlighted the struggle within the intelligence community to attract and retain a diverse workforce. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines has made diversity hiring and retention a priority. As the first woman to serve in the role, she’s advocated for better data and asking harder questions around what reforms can support the push for diversity. 

A 2020 GAO report on diversity within the intelligence community noted racial and ethnic minorities comprise about 37% of both the federal and civilian workforces, they only amount to about 26% of the intelligence community workforce. 

“From my optic, looking back the CIA has come a long way in the last 15 to 20 years in becoming more diverse,” said Christopher Burgess, who spent more than 30 years working for the CIA and is currently an author and speaker on security strategy. He noted two specific issues with diversity: promotion potential across disciplines, and recruiting professionals with the right cultural and linguistic proficiency – which benefits from immigrants who are likely to have extensive foreign ties to mitigate. 

“As an applicant, the background investigation for an individual with foreign roots will take longer than for those whose life was spent within 50 miles of home,” Burgess said. “I recall in 1975, it took 11 months for my background investigation, as I was a son of a foreign service officer and spent the past 11 years abroad. Diversity by race, ethnicity, and gender is necessary if the CIA or the IC is to have success. The administrative tail that all applicants drag with them, may be weighing them down, when the opposite should be true: it should be lifting them up as a more attractive candidate.” 

Promoting Diversity in the Intelligence Community

That “administrative tail” is one thing ODNI is currently looking into. Does the security clearance process involve unnecessary bias that could be weeding out qualified candidates?

ODNI is currently reviewing delays in clearance processing for the slowest 10% of security applicants - a group that is currently excluded from reports on security clearance processing times, which only reflect the fastest 90% of all applicants. The Washington Post also indicated ODNI would be reviewing to see if polygraph examiners need “additional race and ethnicity training.”

Today’s diversity and data push comes on the heels of a 2021 RAND report on the potential for racial bias in the security clearance process. It highlighted the disconnect between current EEOC regulations and the security clearance process, which requires individuals to reveal information well outside of the scope of what would generally be asked in a standard interview.

"Thus, even if EEOC regulations succeed in preventing individuals from minoritized racial communities from encountering questions about their national origin, marital status, or financial status when hired into an organization, security clearance applicants do face such questions during the background investigation process—with potential effects on their clearance approval, job security, and career advancement," the report notes.

The government currently collects data on race and ethnicity for applicants, but it doesn’t cross reference that data with security clearance applicants. There has generally been a firm line between HR and security functions – and for the reasons outlined above – the security clearance process generally asks for lines of data that would be otherwise prohibited from consideration in the hiring process. 

But as officials consider how to ensure security clearance guidelines aren’t disproportionately affecting one audience, some are asking how, and if, that data should be better cross analyzed – at least on an aggregate level. 

Making the Security Clearance Process Less Difficult for Diverse Applicants

The RAND report cites multiple societal factors aligning with the adjudicative guidelines which may make it more difficult for diverse candidates to successfully obtain a security clearance. Financial issues are the top cause of security clearance denial and revocation, and student loan delinquency is a growing cause of clearance denials and revocations within that umbrella. The report cites research that "Black college graduates owe $7,400 more on average than their White peers ($23,400 versus $16,000, as of 2016). And, a few years after graduation, this Black-White debt gap more than triples ($25,000 more, on average) because of differences in interest accrual and graduate school borrowing by Black college graduates."

RAND also noted how predatory lending and high consumer debt were more likely to affect minorities. And other adjudicative guidelines, like drug involvement and criminal conduct, may be more likely to affect minority communities, and could be contributing to more diverse candidates being eliminated through the clearance process.

"We do not intend to suggest that adjudicative guidelines should not be applied or that the areas investigated are irrelevant to a risk assessment. But we do note that actual risk and perceived risk may differ among racially minoritized individuals based on historical context and persistent negative biases," RAND emphasized.

Transparency, Training, Awareness

The key recommendations provided by RAND related to transparency, training, and awareness. Individuals applying for a security clearance often don't have a clear understanding of the process, including the basics of what the investigation and adjudicative timelines will be. Barring policy changes, RAND notes that given the key role of investigators and adjudicators in reviewing individuals for reliability and trustworthiness, it may be worth renewed emphasis in correlated and mitigating bias that may be applied in the cases (and ensuring the whole person concept is applied based on actual vs. perceived risk). But even eliminating humans from the equation doesn’t eliminate risk, however. RAND cautioned that as AI is used with greater frequency in the clearance process, care should be taken to ensure bias isn’t coded into vetting programs.

The awareness piece of the recommendation comes down to employee education. One aspect of the clearance process that's difficult to calculate is how many individuals simply 'opt out' of national security careers because of their own perceptions and fears about not being able to obtain a security clearance. Affinity bias may prevent recruitment of more diverse candidates.

Exploring the security clearance process is just one step the IC is taking to ensure it establishes what roadblocks may be hindering the path for more diverse candidates into national security careers. Armed with more metrics and a clear commitment to ensuring both diversity recruitment and career progression, it's hoping it can help make more diverse groups come to the IC, and just as importantly, stay.

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