More than half the agencies in GAO's report said they don’t quickly grant security clearance reciprocity because they don’t trust other agencies’ background investigations.

More than half the agencies in GAO's report said they don’t quickly grant security clearance reciprocity because they don’t trust other agencies’ background investigations. tacojim / Getty Images

GAO: Agencies need to trust each other’s background check processes

An array of technical and cultural challenges plague the federal government’s ability to OK the transfer of federal employees across agencies, the government watchdog found.

Federal agencies need to upgrade their IT systems and dispel a culture of mistrust in order to ensure that federal workers transferring between agencies can do so in a timely manner, a government watchdog reported this week.

The Government Accountability Office on Monday published a report examining the process by which officials determine whether a federal employee transferring between agencies are suitable for government employment or a security clearance. In most cases, federal agencies are required to recognize and accept background adjudications previously made by other agencies, a concept known as reciprocity.

But in practice, a combination of challenges, both technical and cultural, impede agencies’ ability to efficiently implement reciprocity. Both the Office of Personnel Management and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence have “unreliable” data on agencies’ reciprocity decisions.

In the case of ODNI, GAO found that the data ODNI requires from agencies on a quarterly basis has been reported inconsistently, the data it has collected may not be properly maintained and the data that the agency does have is incomplete. Additionally, GAO reported that ODNI may not have a complete understanding of which agencies are required to report data.

“A 2019 memorandum from an ODNI component—the National Counterintelligence and Security Center—states that ODNI planned to collect data from more than 115 agencies for fiscal year 2019,” GAO wrote. “However, ODNI officials told us that they collected data from about 90 agencies from fiscal years 2019 through 2021. They could not explain why the 2019 memorandum referred to 2015 agencies. In June 2023, ODNI officials told us that they began an assessment to identify all agencies that conduct national security vetting in response to our observations and that they were nearly finished with that assessment.”

ODNI is in the midst of developing a new IT system governing security clearance and background investigation data, called the National Background Investigation Services, to manage “end-to-end personnel vetting processes, including reciprocity” for most of the federal workforce. But despite being in the works since 2016, the agency still does not have a “reliable schedule” for its deployment.

On OPM’s side, the government’s HR agency’s IT system, the Central Verification System, does not directly collect data on issues related to reciprocity.

“The officials stated that the data [they collect] provide an approximate measure of the extent that agencies grant reciprocity for suitability, fitness and credentialling determinations and therefore have some value to help them fulfill OPM’s oversight responsibilities,” the report stated. “Specifically, the officials explained that the data measure the inverse of reciprocity. That is, the data measure when an agency could have granted reciprocity but did not. However, OPM officials acknowledged that the data on duplicate investigations also include data on other events and are thus not reliable.”

But OPM cited to investigators multiple examples where they have successfully requested tools be implemented in ODNI’s forthcoming data system to address current gaps in their data and tracking of reciprocity issues.

Other obstacles in the way of a quick reciprocity process may be harder to dislodge, however. GAO found that more than half of the federal agencies it surveyed—17 out of 31—don’t quickly grant reciprocity because they simply don’t trust other agencies’ background investigation processes. And some agency representatives reported a simple lack of prompt communication between agencies during the process.

“For example, one respondent stated that their agency did not trust other agencies’ security clearance processes because some do not require that the results of the polygraph indicate ‘no significant response’ to grant a Top Secret clearance with access to sensitive compartmented information,” GAO wrote. “Another respondent said that other agencies may have inconsistent, or possibly subjective, applications of adjudicative guidelines and investigative standards, which may lead to differences between agencies.”

ODNI said that it tries to stress the requirement that agencies provide reciprocity to one another and “dispel the reluctance” to grant it.

“Despite ODNI’s efforts to address this challenge, as noted above, 17 of 31 respondents to our survey said they do not trust other agencies’ security clearance processes at times, and ODNI officials pointed out that it was an ongoing challenge,” the report stated. “Nevertheless, ODNI has not developed and implemented a plan to address agencies’ concerns that led them to mistrust some other agencies’ processes. If ODNI develops and implements such a plan, agencies may grant reciprocity more often and avoid duplicative investigative and adjudicative work.”

GAO issued an array of recommendations to OPM and ODNI on ways they can shore up the reciprocity process. OPM concurred with all recommendations directed toward the agency, while ODNI provided “technical comments” on the report’s contents, but stopped short of weighing in on the recommendations pertaining to their role.