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Federal Workforce: Actions Needed to Improve the Transfer of Personnel Security Clearances and Other Vetting Determinations

GAO-24-105669 Published: Jan 22, 2024. Publicly Released: Jan 22, 2024.
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Fast Facts

The government's security clearance and other "personnel vetting" processes help ensure that federal employees are trustworthy.

Personnel vetting decisions are supposed to be reciprocal: if one agency clears an employee, that employee should be able to transfer to another agency without a new background check.

But the Offices of Personnel Management and the Director of National Intelligence—who oversee the vetting processes—don't have good data on how often this works. We recommended addressing this and other challenges, such as agency access to a classified IT system.

The personnel security clearance process is on our High Risk List.

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Highlights

What GAO Found

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) and the Office of Personnel Management (OPM)—two agencies with key personnel vetting oversight responsibilities—do not have reliable data on the extent to which agencies have honored previously granted vetting determinations, known as reciprocity. GAO found that reciprocity data ODNI collected from agencies were inconsistent and incomplete, as described below.

  • Data were inconsistent. Agencies sometimes reported data to ODNI by component and other times at the agency level, according to ODNI officials. For example, in fiscal year 2019, the Treasury Department reported data by each of its components for the first two quarters but reported data at the department level in the third quarter, according to ODNI officials.
  • Data were incomplete. Two of five agencies GAO analyzed did not report required data to ODNI on the frequency with which they determined individuals were ineligible for reciprocity. ODNI officials said they did not know how many agencies should report data to them, but have initiated an assessment to do so.

By following best practices for evaluating the reliability of data—such as tracing a sample of data records to or from source documents to assess the accuracy and completeness of the data—ODNI could improve its oversight of security clearance reciprocity.

ODNI and OPM have not fully addressed all reciprocity-related challenges that agencies and contractors face (see figure). For example, 28 of the 31 agencies GAO surveyed stated that information technology (IT) systems at times did not have complete information needed to make reciprocity determinations. If ODNI and OPM took actions to mitigate this and other challenges, agencies may be able to grant reciprocity more often and more quickly.

Reciprocity Challenges That Agencies and Contractors Face

Reciprocity Challenges That Agencies and Contractors Face

Contractors reported that agencies did not provide updates when the security clearance reciprocity process was delayed. If ODNI develops and implements a plan to ensure that contractors are informed about the status of reciprocity determinations, contractors may be able to plan projects and hire personnel better, which could have positive effects on government contracts.

Why GAO Did This Study

Personnel vetting processes help ensure the trustworthiness of the federal government's workforce. Federal agencies vet personnel to determine whether they are suitable for employment or eligible to access classified information, among other things. Agencies are generally required to accept personnel vetting determinations that other agencies have previously made. This reciprocity can promote personnel mobility and help reduce skills gaps.

GAO was asked to review personnel vetting reciprocity issues. This report assesses the extent to which ODNI and OPM have (1) collected reliable data on agency reciprocity in the personnel vetting processes and (2) addressed reciprocity challenges that agencies and contractors face.

GAO analyzed ODNI data on reciprocity for fiscal years 2019 through 2021, and data from five agencies selected to obtain a diverse set of perspectives. GAO also surveyed a nongeneralizable sample of 31 agencies and 600 contractors (293 responded).

Recommendations

GAO made eight recommendations to ODNI and OPM, including that ODNI follow best practices to evaluate the reliability of data, ODNI and OPM develop and implement a plan to ensure that IT systems contain complete and accurate information, and ODNI develop and implement a plan to inform contractors about the status of reciprocity determinations. OPM concurred with the recommendations directed to it. ODNI did not provide formal comments on the recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Office of the Director of National Intelligence The Director of National Intelligence should follow best practices for evaluating the reliability of the data that agencies submit related to security clearance reciprocity. Such best practices include interviewing knowledgeable officials about their data systems, reviewing data system documentation to determine if data entry controls are sufficient, and tracing a sample of data to or from source documents to assess the accuracy and completeness of the data. (Recommendation 1)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Office of the Director of National Intelligence The Director of National Intelligence should develop and implement a plan that addresses agencies' concerns that led them to mistrust some other agencies' security clearance processes. (Recommendation 2)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Office of the Director of National Intelligence The Director of National Intelligence should facilitate access to secure facilities and systems for agencies to ensure they can make reciprocity determinations. (Recommendation 3)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Office of the Director of National Intelligence The Director of National Intelligence, in coordination with the Director of the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency, should develop and implement a plan to ensure that current and future IT systems used for personnel vetting contain complete and accurate information required to make security clearance reciprocity determinations. (Recommendation 4)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Office of Personnel Management The Director of the Office of Personnel Management, in coordination with the Director of the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency, should develop and implement a plan to ensure that current and future IT systems used for personnel vetting contain complete and accurate information required to make suitability, fitness, and credentialing reciprocity determinations. (Recommendation 5)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Office of the Director of National Intelligence The Director of National Intelligence should issue clarifying guidance, such as by updating Security Executive Agent Directive 7, to address whether communicating with prior agencies is permitted in the security clearance reciprocity process and, if so, under what circumstances. (Recommendation 6)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Office of Personnel Management The Director of the Office of Personnel Management should develop and implement supplemental policies to ensure that federal agencies consistently share information with other agencies attempting to grant suitability, fitness, and credentialing reciprocity. (Recommendation 7)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Office of the Director of National Intelligence The Director of National Intelligence should develop and implement a plan that accounts for contractor and agency concerns—with consideration of resource and privacy issues—to ensure that contractors are informed about the status of reciprocity determinations when there are delays. (Recommendation 8)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

Full Report

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Topics

Background investigationsBest practicesClassified informationCompliance oversightCriminal investigationsData reliabilityFederal contractorsFederal workforceInformation systemsIntelligence communityMilitary intelligenceNational securityPersonnel managementPersonnel security clearances