A Washington Post article last week highlighted the struggle within the intelligence community to attract and retain a diverse workforce. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines has highlighted the need for more diverse candidates to aid the agency’s thought diversity, and has appointed diversity officials to help the agency address the issue. One aspect of the process the ODNI is looking into is the security clearance process.
Could Clearance Delays Answer the Diversity Question?
That Washington Post article noted ODNI is currently investigating and reviewing delays in clearance processing for the slowest 10% of security applicants – a group that is currently not reported on in reports of security clearance processing times, which reflect the fastest 90% of all applicants. It also said ODNI would be reviewing if polygraph examiners need ‘additional race and ethnicity training.’
The effort comes on the heels of a 2021 RAND report on the potential for racial bias in the security clearance process. The report 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.
Impact of Financial Issues on Diversity
The 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. It also highlighted how other adjudicative guidelines – drug involvement and criminal conduct, specifically – were also more likely to affect minority communities.
“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 involved in the process often don’t have a clear understanding of the process, including the basics of what the investigation and adjudicative timelines will be. In addition, because racial data is not gathered on applicants, the government is not able to assess or analyze if bias is affecting one group with greater frequency. 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).
The awareness 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 stay.