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Background investigations: How to get a security clearance for a federal job

This is part of Federal Times’ ongoing series about the federal hiring process. For more information on how to get a federal job, read here.

Working in the federal government — or as a contractor who performs work on behalf of an agency — means going through at least one background investigation to determine if a candidate is a suitable fit for federal employment, but the extent of that investigation can vary widely.

“While generally every individual appointed to a federal job undergoes a background investigation, the level of investigation required depends on the position designation level,” an official from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management told Federal Times.

“The higher the risk or sensitivity level, the more in-depth the investigation coverage. The lowest investigation level is a Tier One investigation which is conducted for personnel assigned to Low Risk, Non-Sensitive positions.”

Listings on USAJobs may include the investigation tier required for the position, and search filters can also narrow down job listings by their required clearance level.

Who conducts the investigation

Once an agency determines that they would like to hire a particular applicant for an open position, a tentative job offer is extended to that person, at which point the applicant’s information is sent to the investigating agency for review.

The Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency was recently designated as the office responsible for conducting investigations, after a transfer of responsibility from the Office of Personnel Management’s National Background Investigation Bureau Oct. 1, 2019.

At this point, the hiring agency could decide to issue interim clearance or interim appointment — meaning that the applicant can start work before the investigation is completed — based on the sensitivity of the position.

The DCSA investigations can then take anywhere from a few weeks to several months, depending on the level of investigation needed and the person being investigated. Currently the goal for a Non-Critical Sensitive position (or Confidential/Secret clearance) is 40 days, while the standard for a Critical Sensitive or Special Sensitive position (or Top Secret clearance) is 80 days.

The agency still has a case backlog of around 230,000 cases, according to early 2020 reports, though that number is down significantly from the massive backlogs of years prior.

Investigation times can also vary based on a person’s history.

“An investigation where the individual has moved every two years and changed jobs frequently may take longer to complete than an investigation where someone has lived and work in the same locations for many years,” the OPM official said.

“Additionally, if there are adjudicatively relevant issues or behaviors of concern that are developed in the investigation, the investigator may be required to interview additional sources and conduct additional field work; thus, extending the timeliness.”

Once the investigation is completed, the findings are turned over to agency adjudicators to make the final hiring decision.

That adjudication step can throw a wrench in hiring timelines, as industry experts have reported that some agencies turn such decisions around in a matter of days while others take weeks or months, and agencies like the Department of Defense have cut their adjudication workforces in an effort to save money.

Background investigation vs. security clearance

Every federal employee must go through a background investigation, but not every employee needs or ends up with a security clearance.

“A security clearance is a decision to grant someone access to classified information and is based on the information contained in the background investigation and the need for the person to have access,” the OPM official said.

“The level of the background investigation is determined by the duties and responsibilities of the position and the degree of potential damage to the efficiency or integrity of the service or to the national security. Every position receives a position designation level regarding the risk and sensitivity of the position which determines the type of investigation required for the incumbent.”

Clearance carryover

Applicants that already have an existing security clearance from a previous government job, contracting job or military service may be able to expedite the investigation process, depending on how high that clearance was and how recently it was performed.

“If the new position is at the same position designation level, the hiring agency should be able to reciprocally accept the investigation and approve entry on duty,” the OPM official said.

“However, if the military personnel held a Secret clearance while in the service but is now being considered for a position requiring a Top Secret clearance, the corresponding Top Secret investigation (a Tier Five) would need to be conducted on the individual.”

Having an existing, high-level security clearance can also make a person a hot-commodity in the government-adjacent job market, as contractors can put a pre-cleared employee on the job much faster than one that still has to be investigated.

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