Cover: A Diverse and Trusted Workforce

A Diverse and Trusted Workforce

Examining Elements That Could Contribute to the Potential for Bias and Sources of Inequity in National Security Personnel Vetting­

Published Oct 31, 2023

by Sina Beaghley, Jessica Welburn Paige, David Stebbins, Sarah Zelazny, Samantha Ryan, Amy Burnett Cross

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Research Question

  1. What elements have the potential to contribute to bias and sources of inequity related to an individual's race or ethnicity, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, or neurodivergence within the security clearance vetting process?

Applicants for the national security workforce are required to provide detailed personal information as part of the background investigation process to adjudicate their eligibility for a security clearance. As a result, during the course of the personnel vetting process, an individual's race or ethnicity, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, and neurodivergence may be knowable or inferred by the personnel conducting the investigations and adjudications. Human judgment and biases that manifest themselves in other employment or social contexts have the potential to contribute to bias and sources of inequity in the human element of the process of determining security clearance eligibility. The authors explore the potential for related bias or sources of inequity within the federal personnel vetting process. Such potential biases and inequities could inhibit the U.S. government's goals and abilities to hire and maintain national security personnel with diverse backgrounds and perspectives.

Key Findings

Potential for bias and sources of inequity exist in the structural and human elements of the security clearance personnel vetting process

  • In a security clearance investigation, an applicant's race or ethnicity, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, and neurodivergence are either knowable from the documentation that applicants are required to submit as part of the structural element of the process or can be inferred by the personnel conducting the investigative, review, and adjudicative human elements of the process.
  • A literature review emphasized that human judgment and biases that manifest in other employment or social contexts have the potential to contribute to bias and sources of inequity in the human element of the process of determining security clearance eligibility.
  • Some components of the forms and guidelines that make up the elements of the security clearance personnel vetting process have the potential to contribute to bias and sources of inequity because of the nature of the information requested, the language used to request it, and the language in the guidelines used to adjudicate that information.
  • Although training for personnel vetting staff includes cognitive bias awareness, investigator and adjudicator training does not include modules that train or prepare staff for unbiased engagement with applicants from diverse backgrounds.
  • Demographic data on racial or ethnic, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, and neurodivergence categories are not collected or analyzed in the security clearance process, limiting the ability to assess the process and adjudicative outcomes for applicants to determine whether and where bias and inequity may be occurring.

Recommendations

  • Officials should review and revise the Standard Form 86 and Security Executive Agent Directive 4 guidelines (and other personnel vetting forms and guidelines) to minimize the potential for bias and sources of inequity related to race or ethnicity, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, and neurodivergence, while still collecting the information that is essential to support a national security clearance adjudicative decision.
  • Officials should implement standardized and tailored training to prepare individuals in the investigative and adjudicative process for interactions with applicants from diverse cultures, experiences, and lifestyles.
  • Officials should explore implementing a mechanism by which personnel vetting applicants could voluntarily provide demographic information about race/ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, and neurodivergence (via a survey or other method) for follow-on independent analysis that is separate from the formal background investigation and adjudication process.

This research was sponsored by the Security, Suitability, and Credentialing (SSC) Performance Accountability Council Program Management Office (PAC PMO) and conducted within the Personnel, Readiness, and Health Program of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD).

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