Proposal would make suitability and fitness screenings more efficient and lean on automation rather than the existing, labor-intensive process.

Proposal would make suitability and fitness screenings more efficient and lean on automation rather than the existing, labor-intensive process. thianchai sitthikongsak

A New Proposal Would Make Federal Jobs Harder to Obtain for Insurrectionists, Easier for Former Drug Users

Reforms to employee suitability and fitness screening would make the process faster and safer for agencies, OPM says.

Federal agencies would be able to onboard employees faster and have better access to real-time information on risks associated with their workforces under a new proposal from the Biden administration to revamp the employee vetting process. 

The proposed rule on suitability and fitness screenings for federal workers would make the process more efficient and lean on automation rather than the existing, labor-intensive process, the Office of Personnel Management said in the document released on Tuesday. It would also tweak the list of issues that would disqualify applicants and employees from federal jobs to align with “emergent threats” that federal agencies have identified as particular concerns. 

Federal job applicants and employees in the competitive service go through suitability vettings before they are offered a position or as part of ongoing evaluations. The screenings are separate from job qualifications and, for positions that require them, security clearances. They examine issues like criminal history and other behavior that raises red flags, which could have an “adverse impact on the integrity or efficiency” of the federal service. Agencies generally make their own determinations of suitability, though they must follow OPM’s guidance at a minimum. Unfavorable findings can result in debarment from the federal government.

Previously, existing employees in moderate or high-risk positions had to go through reevaluations every five years. If finalized, the new rule would eliminate that requirement and instead mandate “continuous evaluation” for employees in all positions. That would largely rely on new technology to automate the process, OPM said, giving agencies quicker access to information about employees potentially posing risks. The specifics of the evaluations would vary depending on the risks associated with each position. 

The rule would also make the evaluations more consistent across government, allowing agencies to accept an existing favorable suitability determination for employees who have already served in government. Federal employees would not have to go through a new screening so long as their new job was at the same or lower risk level. Former employees returning to government would also have an easier time applying previous approvals to new jobs. That would lead to faster onboarding for agencies, OPM said, long a priority for federal human resources officials. OPM stressed nothing in the rule would prevent agencies from taking a suitability action as soon as an issue arose. 

The changes would also empower federal employees to advance their careers by more easily moving between positions and agencies. 

“These changes promote a more trusted workforce to serve the American public through an enhanced risk management approach for personnel vetting, one which advances the mobility of the workforce to support agency mission needs,” OPM said.

The HR agency proposed making some specific changes to the vetting process. Previously, applicants were disqualified for “criminal and dishonest conduct.” OPM is looking to separate those issues, noting that some dishonest conduct may not be criminal. Agencies would still consider employees’ and applicants’ drug and alcohol use, but would raise the threshold for disqualification. Individuals would have to show steps toward rehabilitation, but no longer have to demonstrate “substantial rehabilitation.” They would have to demonstrate “excessive alcohol abuse” rather than just alcohol abuse. That language would better reflect screening for behavior that prevents individuals from “performing the duties of position” or would pose a threat to themselves or others. 

The rule would add “violent behavior” as a potential disqualifier, with OPM noting the current rules do not capture actions that take place outside the workplace but are neither criminal nor dishonest. Those looking for jobs in law enforcement, child care, patient care or front-line customer service who have demonstrated histories of violent behavior would be particularly ill-equipped to serve in them, OPM said. 

Existing rules prohibit efforts to oust the government by force, which OPM called too vague. The new rule would disqualify employees and applicants who attempted to overthrow federal, state, local or tribal governments; engaged in acts of force or violence to prevent others from practicing their constitutional rights; indoctrinated others into taking illegal actions; or participated in a group with knowledge of its unlawful aim. 

Those updates would help identify “significant insider threat risks to federal agencies and to the public they serve,” OPM said. It would also “better address risks associated with, for example, racially- or ethnically-motivated unlawful acts of violent extremism and anti-government or anti-authority domestic terrorism, which have been identified as emergent threats posing a significant public safety challenge.” 

The Biden administration previously announced efforts to root out domestic extremists and other threats within federal agency ranks. OPM is accepting comments on the proposed rule through April 3.