Cover: Assessing Security Risk in a New Normal

Assessing Security Risk in a New Normal

Impacts of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Personal and Work Behaviors

Published Apr 26, 2023

by Douglas Yeung, Sarah Zelazny, Sangeeta C. Ahluwalia, Sina Beaghley

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Research Questions

  1. How might the COVID-19 pandemic affect each risk factor considered in adjudication?
  2. What is the magnitude of the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic, and do differences exist among different groups of people?
  3. What could be done in response, including adjusting mental decision models of risky behavior and updated risk standards?
  4. What are the benefits and risks associated with updating decision models?

The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has had a significant impact on a wide variety of risk behaviors and indicators that are considered during security, suitability, and credentialing investigations and adjudications. Given that the U.S. government personnel vetting process is focused on detecting risk and assessing an individual for their trustworthiness, such changes in behavior related to the COVID-19 pandemic have the potential to affect decisionmaking and adjudication regarding what constitutes risky behavior for the purposes of personnel vetting. This is particularly important when considering the risk an individual might present if granted a security clearance and access to classified information.

In this report, the authors abstracted adjudicative factors likely to have been affected by the pandemic or pandemic-specific circumstances from pertinent personnel vetting documents and organized them into categories, including financial hardship and unemployment, alcohol abuse or misuse, drug and substance abuse or misuse, mental and emotional health and well-being, and changes or increases in remote or virtual work. They then conducted an academic literature and open-source data search to explore how these risk factors might have been affected by the pandemic and interviewed subject-matter and field experts to further understand how changes in these risk behaviors might affect the adjudication process.

Potential action areas where the vetting processes could be adapted include monitoring risk behavior changes as social conditions change, assessing fairness to applicants, developing or formalizing mitigation actions, and addressing vetting workforce challenges during a pandemic or similar event.

Key Findings

  • During the COVID-19 pandemic, people consumed more substances (such as alcohol), experienced loss of employment and subsequent decreases in income, and experienced increases in mental health impacts.
  • Impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic were unevenly distributed among different groups of people, along racial, gender, and age categories.
  • The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and other crises on people looking to serve in trusted positions is changing, and individual adjudicators do not have as much information about societal shifts as they may need.
  • A systematic approach to identifying and categorizing relevant behavior changes will help maintain consistency and justifiability while acknowledging the reality of the new normal.

Recommendations

  • Assess whether observed changes in risk behavior are caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, or if they may be unrelated or only very distally related to the pandemic. Additional research will be needed to evaluate second and third order effects of the pandemic on risk behaviors, such as the effects of a prolonged economic depression on financial considerations, employment, and mental health.
  • Continue emphasis on applicant disclosure of risk behaviors during the adjudication process. Investigators and adjudicators viewed proactive disclosure of these behaviors as a positive mitigating factor, especially when in line with demonstrated attempts to resolve the issue.
  • Monitor vetting processes to ensure fairness to applicants. A first step might be to build on the findings of this study to understand the broader effects of the pandemic and how future crises might affect vulnerable populations (e.g., racial minorities or individuals with low social economic status). This insight can then inform policies to ensure equity.
  • Develop or formalize actions to mitigate the potential impact of the pandemic, such as adjusting guidance around bad debt thresholds to reflect the economic context or adjusting lookback time frames for review of prior risk behaviors.
  • Address screening workforce challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, such as delays in receiving applicant information because of closures or staffing shortages, especially in the fingerprinting process, and the shift to conducting most clearance activities in remote or virtual spaces. These challenges might unintentionally exclude those who might lack the resources needed to successfully engage in the clearance application process.

This research was sponsored by the Security, Suitability, and Credentialing Performance Accountability Council Program Management Office and conducted within the Forces and Resources Policy Program of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD).

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