Ensuring the security clearance process is not disproportionately affecting diverse populations is just one aspect of the Trusted Workforce 2.0 overhaul, and the government’s efforts to make a more agile and intuitive security clearance vetting process. Improving diversity within the federal government has been a key effort of the Biden Administration, and as a follow-on of Executive Order 14035, “Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility in the Federal Workforce” the Director of National Intelligence and Director of the Office of Personnel Management were directed to “take steps to mitigate any barriers in security clearance and background investigation processes or LGBTQ+ [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, and other identities] employees and applicants, in particular transgender and gender non-conforming and nonbinary employees and applicants.”
One of the steps the Performance Accountability Council Program Management Office (PAC PMO) has taken is working with RAND to study diversity in the security clearance process. The latest report by RAND looks specifically at elements of the vetting process that could contribute to bias and inequity.
The report includes an analysis of the SF-86 and adjudicative guidelines. Semi-structured discussions were also held with personnel vetting and DEIA experts. The report offers three specific recommendations:
Recommendation 1: Elements of the SF-86 and security clearance adjudicative guidelines should be reviewed and revised to reduce potential bias along race, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation and neurodivergence.
The RAND study specifically calls out questions on the SF-86 and adjudicative guidelines related to criminal conduct and financial issues. Because minority applicants are statistically more likely to have criminal history and that racial wage gaps and stratification may make minority applicants more likely to have reportable financial issues.
Recommendation 2: More tailored training on cognitive bias is needed for investigators and adjudicators.
The report notes that cognitive bias training is a part of training for security clearance background investigators and adjudicators. But more work may be needed to not just train adjudicators on bias but to give them tips for how to be better prepared for real-world scenarios with applicants from diverse backgrounds.
Recommendation 3: Consider allowing applicants to voluntarily provide demographic data.
Because the current security clearance process intentionally seeks to avoid questions related to diversity that could influence the process, it’s difficult to identify whether or not the process is disproportionately affecting diverse populations. A process that would gather demographic information would be imperfect if applicants self-selected, but it would at least begin the process of a dataset around how security clearance outcomes may differ for diverse applicants.
Key to a More Diverse Applicant Pool: A More Informed One
RAND’s second recommendation is likely the biggest area of opportunity for the security clearance process today. Information and understanding are the key to ensuring more diverse applicants don’t just apply for national security jobs – but see through the process.
Better training for background investigators could help make the security clearance process a more welcoming environment – a topic of another recent RAND report, which looked into personnel vetting through the lenses of candidate experience.
Policy isn’t always easy to change – and it can’t always move the needle in the right direction. Education remains an accessible avenue to get more diverse applicants into national security today.