The Office of Personnel Management recently released a draft version of a new Personnel Vetting Questionnaire, the replacement for the SF-86, SF-85, and SF-85P. In a period of public comment, the Intelligence and National Security Alliance (INSA) offered its feedback on the upgrade to everyone’s favorite security clearance application.

Larry Hanauer, Vice President of Policy at INSA, sat down with ClearanceJobs to discuss the form, why it’s an improvement on the current process, and some of the small steps the government can take it to be even better.

Lindy Kyzer: I would like to start with why the Personnel Vetting Questionnaire: Why does an organization like INSA provide comments during this comment period on something like the SF-86 replacement?

Larry Hanauer: So, INSA has a clear interest in making sure that personal vetting forms and questionnaires are clear and enable people to report information accurately, because INSA promotes public-private collaboration on intelligence and national security issues. We have about 160 or so member companies who support the Defense Department, the Intelligence Community, Department of Homeland Security and others. And they need cleared personnel to support the contracts they get with government agencies. And if the process of investigating people, adjudicating their applications, and granting them clearances is really slow and inefficient, which at times it has been, then it’s hard for them to support their government sponsors. So INSA and our members have a clear interest in making sure that the clearance investigation and adjudication processes are effective and efficient.

The changes really are pretty dramatic in some ways. And the new form, the Personnel Vetting Questionnaire, has a couple of clear improvements over the SF-86 and the other materials that sometimes people use. First of all, the language in the new PVQ is plainer and clearer than in the SF-86, and clear language will lead to more accurate responses and fewer complicated answers that require someone to review an application by hand, which just takes a lot of time. So, keep it simple is a good mantra, and I think the PVQ is simpler and easier for people to fill out.

Secondly, the government previously had different forms for people to use depending on whether they were applying for a job that required a security clearance or just a public trust determination. And if you wanted to upgrade your clearance for a subsequent job, then you had to do another form. Well, the PVQ will replace all of these and applicants will only have to answer the parts that are relevant for the job they’re seeking. But a single form will make it easier for agencies to handle and it’ll make it easier for people to add information and update information later on if they apply for a higher level of access. It’s just useful to keep all the information in a single form, a single format and not have to have multiple forms that people constantly must update and resubmit.

Lindy Kyzer: What does an updated form mean for national security workers and why does it matter for an organization like INSA?

Larry Hanauer: It matters a lot for INSA and our member organizations. INSA is an association that is dedicated to promoting public-private collaboration on intelligence and national security issues. So we have about 160 or so member companies who all support intelligence agencies, Defense Department components, Department of Homeland Security, and other government agencies, and they need people with security clearances to support their clients. So if the investigation and adjudication process is slow and inefficient, then cleared contractors can’t hire people, get them cleared and put them to work to support their government clients. For INSA, this is a very important issue. We want to provide whatever insights we can to make sure that the security clearance process is effective and efficient.

The new form itself is a real improvement in quite several ways over the SF-86 but let me just highlight two. So, first, the language in the new Personnel Vetting Questionnaire, the PVQ, is just cleaner and clearer than the language in the SF-86. Clear language will just lead to more accurate responses and fewer complicated answers that require a human being to take a look at the form and review it, which is awfully time-consuming. So, the form should be simpler and clearer, and that should just make everything more efficient and speedier.

The government used to have different forms for people to use, depending on whether they were applying for a job that required a security clearance or just a public trust determination. The PVQ will replace all of these, and applicants will only have to answer the parts that are relevant for the job that they’re seeking. But having a single form will make it easier for agencies to handle and it’ll make it easier for people to add information or update information later on if they apply for a higher level of access at a later point time. Basically having all the information in one form, in one place, in one format is going to make the process significantly more efficient.

Lindy Kyzer: I agree. I think it’s a really wise decision to consolidate the form and put those different parts in one vetting form, kind of really fits with what they’re doing with Trusted Workforce 2.0 and seems to make a lot of sense. So again, this is still not a final document, and still a bit of a working document. There was this public comment period where stakeholders, folks with an interest, could provide comments. INSA did offer some insight into that comment period. I want to kind of walk through some of those bullets and buckets, and some of the things that you provided comment on and discussed. The first topic being changes to marijuana use and marijuana as a security matter. So, what are the changes there and what’s your feedback on that?

Larry Hanauer: The form treats marijuana use as a separate issue from a candidate’s use of any other illegal drugs that they might have used before they fill out the form before they apply for a cleared position. And the government’s decision to treat marijuana use differently from other drugs that are on the federal schedule, frankly, is long overdue. What the PVQ is going to do now compared to the SF-86, is make it easier for applicants to be specific about their history of drug use, if they have one, and that’ll enable adjudicators to assess whether an applicant’s use of federally illegal drugs really poses a security risk.

The federal government is interested in whether a candidate has a drug problem, could be blackmailed, or has engaged in a pattern of illegal behavior. And although marijuana remains illegal at the federal level, it’s legal in more than 38 states in addition to DC and Guam for either medical or recreational purposes. So, the federal government doesn’t really have an interest in eliminating candidates who have engaged in activity that’s legal at the state level. It’s just not worth the government’s time, and there hasn’t been any evidence to suggest that pre-employment marijuana use alone creates a security risk.

Furthermore, the Director of National Intelligence who oversees security policy for the entire federal government issued guidance in December 2021 that said that pre-employment marijuana use will from that point forward be considered as a factor, but not as a determinative or disqualifying factor in making decisions on clearances. So, to elicit information that’s relevant to security decisions, the PVQ really has to ask different and more nuanced questions about drug use than the SF-86 did. Because if it lumps questions about drug use all into a single question, then it’s impossible to differentiate between occasional pre-employment marijuana use, which now the DNI says is not a disqualifying factor, and use of some other substance that would still be disqualifying. The form now allows for that extra detail and extra nuance.

One other thing that’s kind of interesting: there’s been a great deal of confusion about whether the use of CBD, which is derived from marijuana, is disqualifying, even though it can be found in soap, shampoos, oils, and other perfectly legal products that you can buy at your local farmer’s market or Whole Foods. The DNI’s guidance on marijuana use didn’t really provide a clear answer on CBD. It basically said that because THC levels in CBD aren’t regulated, CBD use could result in a positive drug test, so use at your own risk. But what the PVQ makes clear is that the use of cannabis products containing minimal levels of THC like CBD doesn’t need to be disclosed. And so that’s a huge clarification and it’s just going to eliminate confusion on the part of applicants. It’s going to eliminate the provision of a lot of irrelevant information that some human being is going to have to take time to review, which then just delays the processing of the application form.

Lindy Kyzer: And another key change of the form is around political violence and domestic terrorism. So maybe talk through that a little bit. That’s obviously been a hot topic in the news and something that’s created a lot of chatter and interest and, hey, issues with the current SF-86 and saying, “Are the questions clear enough?” How does the PVQ change that?

Larry Hanauer: Well, it’s funny. I mean a lot of us have probably chuckled when we’re in a clearance interview and an investigator asks if we’ve ever been part of an organization that’s advocated the violent overthrow of the U.S. government. But events of the past few years have really demonstrated that this question is actually very relevant and needs to be asked. The problem though is that the SF-86’s questions on this topic were just too vague, too broad, not current, and don’t reflect the ways in which people actually organize and act nowadays.

In an era when people organize on social media or on chat boards, what does it mean to be a member of an organization? That’s something the SF-86 asked; “are you a member of an organization that did all these things?” Well, it’s not like the 1930s when people paid dues to the American Communist Party and they got a membership card and they appeared on a membership roster. That term is just kind of outdated. Not only that, but what’s an “organization”? Is a Reddit chat board that advocates political violence an organization that I have to report? And if I post a message on a subreddit, am I a member of it? So, the terms on the SF-86 just no longer matched up with the ways in which people behave, gather, and organize.

The other interesting question is that an applicant’s sincere beliefs might actually enable them to answer no to behavior that the government would clearly consider disqualifying. So, what if a candidate thinks that their use of force wasn’t intended to overthrow the government but merely to reform it in some critical way? Does that mean the candidate can respond no to the question about whether they tried to overthrow the government because they see it differently? The wording of those questions was just too vague and just didn’t reflect the situation that the country is in. INSA recommended that the PVQ’s questions be clarified, so they elicit clear facts about candidates’ activities, taking into consideration the present day ways of organizing and ensure that a candidate’s personal perception of his or her actions doesn’t influence the answer.

Lindy Kyzer: Well, now we get to get a little wonky, which obviously, I always love this part. So e-adjudication, which folks might not necessarily be aware of, is a process to streamline and speed up the clearance process. You did have some feedback on e-adjudication as it relates to the PVQ. So what was that specifically?

Larry Hanauer: INSA recommended that the PVQ be formatted in a way that would facilitate electronic adjudication or e-adjudication of the information and facilitate automated sharing of information among agencies. In a nutshell, too many free text answers on the forms slow down review and adjudication and make it harder for agencies to compile and share data. So, having things like dropdown answers, basically multiple-choice questions when appropriate, will enable faster, more automated reviews and engage human adjudicators only when necessary. People will still have the opportunity in many cases to add free text. The form will sort of drive people to choose from the multiple choice options.

Also, consistent formatting of the responses will just make it easier for cleared personnel to move between agencies and contracts. If you’ve got five options in the dropdown menu, those standardized answers will make it easier for agencies to review someone’s paperwork and pass their clearances, maybe even without a human review because you can just check to see the answers are no, no, no, no, no. And that’s it. For contractors, that means likely getting people to work faster, because they don’t have to wait for their paperwork to be reviewed or their clearance to be re-adjudicated. And if they can get on a contract faster and show up to work on site faster, they can execute the government’s mission more effectively.

Lindy Kyzer: And you bring up a great point we talk about at ClearanceJobs. When it comes to the process, there’s only so many things that candidates or contractors can do to speed up the process. But one of the best things they can do is filling out the SF-86 correctly. And you rightly point out that there are fewer options for error that are included naturally in the PVQ and just the way it’s intuitively created will absolutely improve and speed up that process.

Larry Hanauer:  I remember learning from a briefing a while ago, and I don’t remember the statistics, but there’s a fairly large percentage of SF-86 forms that were returned to the applicants because there was an error in the information, not necessarily a factual error, but the applicant basically didn’t follow the directions, didn’t fill out the information correctly, and that’s just time-consuming. That means that it must go back to the applicant, they have to resubmit it, it has to get back in the queue and back to a reviewer. So, if there are fewer options to choose from, and a lot of those options are automated, multiple choice basically, then hopefully a lot of those cases where forms must be returned to someone and then reevaluated can just be eliminated.

Lindy Kyzer:  And then another point I definitely wanted to touch on, because this was one that I had not actually noticed in my own reading of the form, was the PVQ language around conditions of sharing the information specifically with contractors, and obviously that’s going to be an important topic for INSA members. So, let’s talk through that and what your feedback was on that portion of the form.

Larry Hanauer: Yeah, this gets sort of complex, but basically the PVQ includes language that seems to narrow the so-called routine uses for which the government can share applicant’s information. Currently, when an applicant submits the SF-86, he or she consents to the disclosure of that information under one of 27 routine uses that are deemed permissible under the Privacy Act. One of these routine uses, which is specified on the SF-86 instructions, is to disclose the information to contractors who are undertaking a contract for the government. So, by submitting the form, the applicant provides this prior consent that authorizes the government to provide a company employing the cleared person with information from his or her SF-86 form. Why do companies need that? Well, companies that do classified work are required by the government to implement insider threat programs that try to identify people who may pose a risk and then mitigate those risks. Companies need information that the applicants provide for their clearance in order to implement these mandatory insider threat programs.

Now, the PVQ seems to add conditions compared to the SF-86 that could limit this information sharing. It says that information can be disclosed to contractors, and this is the new part, when necessary to accomplish an agency function related to the system of records. I’m not sure that language necessarily adds anything. I mean, it’s sort of clear that information would only be shared when necessary. The point is that it is necessary to share the information because companies are required to execute these insider threat programs and they need information in order to do so. And if an applicant provides information to the government for a clearance and provides consent for that information to be shared, then clearly it’s relevant to the insider threat program that the cleared contractor is running.

INSA recommended that the PVQ just drop this additional language. There’s no need to create confusion about whether it’s “necessary” to share information that could mitigate an insider threat and that an applicant voluntarily provided. So, we just recommend that they eliminate that phrase and go back to the original language from the SF-86 instructions.

Lindy Kyzer: Yes. You really don’t want language that can be misconstrued around this process because if you’re talking to security professionals, they are going to err on the side of not sharing that information even with stakeholders or individuals who might need it or benefit from it.

Larry Hanauer: That’s right, Lindy. And, in fact, what’s interesting is since the last time the SF-86 was updated, not only was the requirement put in place that companies had to have these insider threat programs, so that suggests it’s necessary to share relevant information, but Congress has actually passed legislation in the FY 22 NDAA that directed agencies to share relevant insider threat information about a contractor employee with the contractor firm. So, it’s pretty clear that both from the executive branch’s own actions by mandating insider threat programs and by Congress’ actions to direct insider threat information sharing, that it is actually more necessary than before to share information that applicants provide on their paperwork. It seems like sharing information with contractors would meet the standard that this new language seems to create, but it’s just not necessary to update the standard. It’s clear that cleared contractors need information about their employees that their employees voluntarily provided so they can assess risks.

Lindy Kyzer:  And so this is a pretty significant overhaul of the security clearance application process. Obviously, your recommendations honed in on the top ones and the ones that were most relevant to the government, but what are maybe some of the other changes on the form or within the PVQ that you didn’t specifically address in your comment period?

Larry Hanauer: The form is different in a lot of ways, and we just couldn’t address every single one of them, but one that I would point out is kind of important: The PVQ makes changes to questions that are asked about mental health, which is terrific given that society treats mental healthcare very differently than it did the last time these security questionnaires were updated. The new PVQ questions focus on serious illnesses that could affect someone’s behavior or reliability rather than on the routine mental health issues for which many people seek counseling like depression, anxiety, or treatment for trauma. People should be encouraged to seek treatment for mental health conditions, not stigmatized for doing so. And, in fact, most agencies and most cleared contractors and many others throughout the country are really encouraging their employees and their team members to seek mental healthcare if they feel they need to. So, the new PVQ questions reflect the present-day emphasis on promoting people’s health and wellbeing rather than stigmatizing them for seeking help for challenges they may face. And that’s a really welcome change.

Lindy Kyzer: Yeah, I think splitting out the form, the way it does with the drug issues and then having mental health treated in a separate bucket really does create the individuality of the form that better reflects the government vetting process, which is trying to become both more universal, so a lot of the population using the same form across public trusts, across different suitability guidelines, along with creating options and ways to vet out what information is specific, and make it easier as things change with marijuana laws or policies down the road.

Larry Hanauer: And that’s key. I mean, as we’ve been talking about, the form is really reflecting new ways in which people interact, new social mores and values. We talked about how it has to account for the way people interact online when looking at potential support for political violence. It needs to reflect new social mores and new values by recognizing that a lot of people are using marijuana recreationally because it’s legal at the state level, that people are seeking mental healthcare for when they have challenges, which is now seen as a good thing, so they can address their problems rather than let them fester. These are things that reflect changes in the way Americans view things like marijuana use or mental healthcare. And so, the form must keep up if it’s going to really assess people who are applying for these jobs.

That’s also related to the fact that the government’s approach to granting security clearances is to look at the whole person. If we’re late on a loan payment, they’re not going to label you as financially delinquent because they look at the whole context in which your financial actions take place. Same way, it’s not really enough to check a box that says, “Yes, I used illegal drugs.” If the answer is, well, you tried it once or twice, five years ago, seven years ago when you were in college, that’s just not relevant to what the government needs to make a decision about. By changing the form, by listing more nuanced and more accurate answers, the government’s going to be better positioned to make a judgment about applicants as a whole person.

Lindy Kyzer: I wanted to make sure if there was anything I didn’t ask about or touch on about the PVQ or security clearance vetting in general. Was there anything else that you wanted to add?

Larry Hanauer: The revisions to the form are a really welcome change. Hopefully this is going to make the investigation and adjudication process more effective and efficient. INSA has been working with executive branch agencies and industry to try to make the security clearance process work better for everyone, and I think this is going to be a pretty important component.


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Lindy Kyzer is the director of content at Have a conference, tip, or story idea to share? Email Interested in writing for Learn more here.. @LindyKyzer