The national security is facing the new challenges created in the wake of COVID-19. With the coronavirus demanding social distancing and creating new calls for workers in some communities to begin telework, some workers with security clearances may be wondering what their options are. Unfortunately, many government agencies are still scrambling to adjust to new workplace realities, and contract requirements. National security work still needs to get done, but while you can build a SCIF in your garage, you won’t be able to start performing classified work at home (the government verifies the facilities used to perform classified work). That doesn’t mean that every employee with a security clearance does – or needs- to spend every day inside a classified facility, however. Telework should be on the table for some cleared workers – and off the table for others.
A 2018 RAND Report outlined the challenges and benefits of moving intelligence community work to unclassified facilities. In a prescient move, it noted how expanded telework options could help in future disasters or continuity of operation plan events – and the challenges. The report stated “using telework during a COOP event requires more than an agency policy on telework. It requires employees to understand the job functions they are allowed to conduct remotely and have access to the data and systems they need to conduct those functions, as well as to the collaboration tools to remain in communication with their own colleagues and with other offices.”
Unfortunately, many agencies and companies today are scrambling to consider what functions can be done remotely, and who should be eligible for telework. And for some government contractors, the very language of their contracts may prohibit workers from performing work off site – an issue the Intelligence and National Security Alliance highlighted in a letter to federal government leaders, requesting their assistance in mitigating the impact of COVID-19 on the cleared industrial base.
“Agencies have begun to send both government and contract staff home and are considering limiting the number of workers who can come to government facilities for as long as eight weeks. While telework may be feasible for some agencies and contracts, the inability to access secure government facilities to do classified work will be extremely disruptive to the Intelligence Community’s industry partners,” the letter reads. “The number of cleared contractors alone is about 500,000 – and they are supported by thousands more colleagues who do not require a clearance. If these contract employees cannot continue working during the COVID crisis, there is a significant risk that they will not rejoin the Trusted Workforce when the crisis is over, leaving the national security industrial base less able to support critical government missions.”
Some contracts are written with requirements that would forbid remote work to be performed – an issue today when the federal government is in some cases mandating employees to stay home. Some national security workers may face furlough, going through PTO, or, as INSA warns, pursuing commercial sector employment and leaving the government entirely.
Top Secret Telework – What Cleared Workers Can Do at Home
While the assumption may be that the possession of a security clearance necessitates a job that requires constant access to classified information, the reality is that many positions require an active federal security clearance due to the nature of where the work is conducted, rather than the work itself, or based on sporadic, rather than daily access to classified information. And with the rise of secure cloud computing options, remote desktop interfaces, and protocols to limit the transmission and export of data, the options for cleared workers to do the unclassified portions of their work from a remote location are greater now than ever before.
Technology has been a driver in allowing work that used to be completed in a classified work environment to be performed at home – not the classified functions themselves, but unclassified code that may be pushed into a classified environment can in many times be built remotely and then deployed on site. In other cases, the rise of open source intelligence means some cleared workers are performing research and developing work products without touching a classified system. But outside of technology, cleared workers need to consider if their very conversations are sensitive, and if so, how they can be conducted in a remote work environment.
“Advances in technology and secure cloud infrastructure is such now that secure access to classified networks isn’t a dream,” said Evan Lesser, founder and president of ClearanceJobs. “While securely accessing the information you need to work requires a checklist of protocols and best practices, employers and workers often forget the operational security of voice communication systems. Calling a coworker on your cell phone to talk classified projects? Not a good idea.”
Cleared professionals working remotely for the first time need to know their technology, and also their classification markings. Just because something isn’t classified doesn’t mean it can be discussed at home. On November 14, 2016, EO 13556 rolled out creating new regulations around Controlled Unclassified Information (CUI). The government has long had sensitivity markings beyond simply classified (For Official Use Only – FOUO – being the most commonly known). CUI creates regulation around how CUI information is stored and transferred – and is very applicable to the cleared remote worker. Just because something doesn’t have a classification doesn’t mean you should print it out and take it home.
Job Sharing and Work Stacking
Many ‘essential’ government workers are teleworking 50% of the time in order to ensure sensitive work can still get done, but fewer individuals are in the office. Shift schedules and stacking work is one way cleared workers can work to flatten the curve while still getting critical work done. Closely analyze your day and determine what functions can be done remotely – and which can’t.
Job sharing is another option – yes, collaborating with coworkers is hard, but if you own critical functions that need to take place – but you can pass those duties off to a team member or work together to accomplish them on alternating schedules, it is an option worth considering as a temporary measure. Stovepipes are second nature in many government agencies. Some classified workers may be remiss to work from home just because they can’t stand the thought of someone taking the reigns of their project for awhile. But now may be the time.
Some national security workers may need to come into the office, and some job functions simply can’t be completed remotely. But now is the time to think critically – what open source intelligence, HR, tech, or admin jobs have unclassified functions that could be done remotely? How much of your job requires JWICS or SIPR, and how much falls under CUI?
Cleared workers are trusted workers. If we can trust individuals with our nation’s most critical secrets, we should be able to trust them with the option of performing some work from home during this unprecedented time. With candidate attraction more difficult than ever, and the government actively competing with the private sector for qualified workers, creating options for remote or telework – even simply as a part of a COOP or as-needed plan – may go a long way in showing your workforce you’re ready to innovate when they need you. Americans are great at turning adversity into innovation. Now is the time for cleared workers and workspaces to do the same.