Many people know the federal government’s personnel vetting process is a drag. The security clearance process can be confusing and intimidating. It can take months or even years to get through a background investigation.
While agencies are taking steps to reduce those timelines, a new report from the RAND Corporation suggests the government could make more of an effort to consider the “candidate experience” throughout the vetting process.
Dave Stebbins, political scientist at RAND and one of the lead authors on the report, pointed out the report provides agencies with “a new look” on personnel vetting reforms that’s largely focused on streamlining screening and vetting processes.
“This is kind of flipping the traditional viewpoint on this, where it’s sort of top down from the government angle,” Stebbins said on Inside the IC. “And what we really wanted to do from this report was sort of reveal it from the candidate point of view.”
The research was commissioned by the Security, Suitability and Credentialing Performance Accountability Council, a group of senior leaders and offices who are leading the Trusted Workforce 2.0 initiative.
The RAND authors write that their report examines processes that “may attract new generations to the national security workforce and promote a positive candidate experience throughout the personnel vetting and screening process.”
Agencies are already taking some steps to simplify the personnel vetting process. Earlier this year, the Office of Personnel Management released a proposed “Personnel Vetting Questionnaire” that would consolidate several forms and simplify the questions applicants must answer before entering the vetting process.
Stebbins pointed to that as an early example of how agencies are considering the candidate experience.
“The last thing we want to do is have a long form and confuse people and then before they can even enter the vetting stage, they’ve sort of self-selected out,” he said.
The National Security Agency is also in the middle of a major recruiting push. As part of its “Future Ready Workforce” initiative, the NSA is considering more flexible work models, while also striving to interact with candidates more during the hiring process.
And officials have also prioritized increasing security clearance “reciprocity” under Trusted Workforce 2.0 to make it easier for job candidates to effectively take their clearance with them when they move jobs, rather than having to go through the process again at another agency.
But the RAND report finds there isn’t any cross-government approach to creating a “positive candidate experience” as part of the federal hiring and screening processes.
“As we went through, we can see lots of folks wanting to improve the candidate experience across the board, but there’s really no training on how to do that,” Stebbins said. “It’s not really formalized in any meaningful way across departments and agencies.”
The report contrasts the idea of “candidate experience” with federal efforts to improve interaction and engagement with the public under a multi-administration “customer experience” push. The Biden administration has designated multiple agencies as “high impact service providers” (HISP) with responsibilities to improve service delivery to the public.
While the Office of Personnel Management is a HISP with responsibilities to improve some elements of the federal hiring process, the RAND report points out that no agencies have been given the explicit responsibility to “improve screening services provided to candidates who have applied to USG job positions requiring a background investigation.”
Some of the major challenges across agencies, RAND’s authors found, is a lack of transparency about where candidates stand in the hiring and screening processes, as well as a “bureaucracy that seems to enable sluggish hiring.”
Many private sector organizations, meanwhile, take steps to actively ensure top talent can find job opportunities at their companies and convert “passive” job seekers to “active” candidates, RAND’s authors write, while also providing clear timelines and expectations for those who decide to apply for a position.
Forecasting clear timelines and communicating employees through the government’s oftentimes complex hiring and screening processes could be “huge” for agencies, Stebbins said.
“One of the things we learned through our interviews is with the private sector is you can kind of think about it like a Disney ride,” Stebbins said. “Why do people stay in line? Well, because there’s signs there that say ‘expect 45 minutes from this spot, 30 minutes from this spot.’ So there’s sort of still motive. ‘Yeah, we’re baking in the sun. We hate that we’re surrounded by 1000 people, however, there’s these little signs there that say, oh, okay, I’m going to get on this roller coaster or tea cup.’”
The report recommends agencies adopt “foundational change management techniques” to help foster a more positive candidate experience through the pre-hiring, hiring, vetting and post-vetting phases of a job candidate’s journey.
“Vetting is an uncomfortable process,” Stebbins said. “There’s no secret there, and there are certainly various reasons for that, but the more we can sort of make them feel welcome and comfortable, really that we want you to work for us. Not that we’re trying to vet out, but that we’re trying to vet in.”