Government employment requires hiring responsible people for judicious roles such as managing finances, overseeing processes, inspecting compliance, and protecting people and assets, among others. While many government jobs do not require a security clearance, certain sensitive positions—often ones for protection of national security—demand especially knowledgeable and responsible employees. Such positions are designated as Public Trust Positions.

What is Public Trust clearance?

Employing agencies determine risk to designate the type of position: sensitive or non-sensitive. The risk could reflect both national security issues involving classified/sensitive information or activities that are not classified. In both cases, different types of background investigations are conducted.

For non-national security positions, background investigations are appropriate for the amount of risk associated with the position. For example, a designated position involves the protection of government funds.  An accountant or comptroller behaving badly will cause a degree of risk as they manage the finances.

According to the SF 85P Questionnaire for Public Trust Positions, an appropriate background investigation is necessary to determine suitability or eligibility to work in public trust or sensitive positions. Applicants for and those already employed in the positions, are required to have the appropriate investigation based on the sensitivity level of the position.

Managers work with human resource personnel to identify, authorize, and designate positions as National Security and public trust positions. Then, they send the appropriate investigation request to the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) prior to but no later than 14 days after the appointment to the public trust position.

why Public Trust Positions are established

The following job descriptions are just a few examples of those requiring an OPM investigation for some obvious reasons:

One of the most ubiquitous positions is the protection of government information technology systems. Employees assigned computer systems for their daily work performance might fit this category.

Managers use the Position Designation of National Security and Public Trust Positions tool available at to determine the appropriate risk level. The tool establishes risk level by the potential impact to the service if employee is not suitable. When the public trust position is outside of sensitive national security considerations (think CONFIDENTIAL, SECRET, TOP SECRET), then they select non-sensitive risk levels of low, moderate and high.

Suitability Criteria

You might already be familiar with the 13 criteria that security clearances are adjudicated against. However, the suitability factors for the three risk levels are similar in scope but not as detailed. They include the following eight criteria:

  • Misconduct or negligence in employment
  • Criminal or dishonest conduct
  • Material, intentional false statement, deception or fraud in examination or appointment
  • Refusal to furnish testimony as required for the investigation
  • Alcohol abuse of a nature and duration which suggests that the applicant or appointee would be prevented from performing the duties of the position in question, or would constitute a direct threat to the property or safety of others
  • Illegal use of narcotics, drugs, or other controlled substances, without evidence of substantial rehabilitation
  • Knowing and willful engagement in acts or activities designed to overthrow the US government by force
  • Any statutory or regulatory bar that prevents the lawful employment of the person involved in the position in question

Adjudication for non-classified positions still consider the “whole person” concept. The considerations are:

  •  The NATURE OF THE POSITION for which the person is applying or in which the person is employed (How much responsibility will they have?  How much is supervised?  What is unsupervised.  For example, the level of supervision may mitigate some of the risk.  Conversely, limited supervision implies more risk.)
  • The nature and seriousness of the conduct
  • The circumstances surrounding the conduct
  • The time of the conduct
  • Contributing societal conditions
  • The absence or presence of rehabilitation or efforts toward rehabilitation

Types of Background Investigations

NATIONAL AGENCY CHECK AND INQUIRIES (NACI)  Requests for investigation are submitted with the SF 85 (Questionnaire for Non Sensitive Positions) Minimum investigation required for non-sensitive/low risk positions.  Coverage includes:

  • Employment/Self-employment/Unemployment Coverage (5 years Inquiry)
  • Education (5 years Highest Degree – Inquiry)
  • Residence (3 years – Inquiry)
  • Reference Contacts
  • Law Enforcement Checks (5 years- Inquiry)
  • National Agency Checks
    • Access to previous Federal investigations through:
      • OPM’s Security/Suitability Investigations Index (SII)
      • Defense Clearance and Investigations Index (DCII)
      • FBI Name Check
    • FBI National Criminal History Fingerprint Check
    • Credit Search of National Credit Bureaus (Optional)
    • Military Personnel Record Search (if applicable)
    • Citizenship Verification

MODERATE BACKGROUND INVESTIGATION (MBI)  Requests for this investigation are submitted with SF 85P (Questionnaire for Public Trust Positions) and primarily conducted for Moderate Risk Public Trust (MRPT) positions. Coverage includes NACI requirements plus:

  •  Reference Contacts
  • Law Enforcement Checks (5 years- Inquiry and/or Record)
    • Credit Search of National Credit Bureaus (7 years)

BACKGROUND INVESTIGATION (BI) Requests for this investigation are submitted with SF 85P.  The BI is primarily conducted for High-Risk Public Trust positions. Coverage includes MBI requirements plus the following variables:

  • Personal Subject Interview
  • Education (2 years/verification of degree)
  • Residence (3 years)
  • Law Enforcement Checks (5 years)
  • National Agency Checks
    • Credit Search of National Credit Bureaus

Public Trust positions require persons with not only the right job skills, but a high degree of trustworthiness. Agencies determine whether the positions are sensitive or non-sensitive and if non-sensitive, determine the risk level of low, moderate or high. The higher the risk level, the more impacting employee misbehavior can be. Depending on the risk level, the appropriate investigation is initiated.

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Jeffrey W. Bennett, SAPPC, SFPC, ISOC, ISP is a podcaster, consultant and author of NISPOM, security, and risk management topics. Jeff's first book was a study guide for security certification. Soon after, Jeff began writing other security books and courses, and started his company Red Bike Publishing, LLC. You can find his books, ITAR, NISPOM, PodCast and more @