What is a Public Trust position? This is a term you will likely begin hearing a lot more of if you seek a job that requires a security clearance background investigation and a clearance level awarded as a condition of your employment.
Those who apply for jobs involving Public Trust must submit to a background investigation in a similar fashion to those who must get checked in order to get a Confidential, Secret, or Top Secret security clearance; this involves interviews, filling out extensive paperwork ahead of a background investigation, and can even require fingerprinting and other means of identification.
Public Trust jobs, which we’ll specifically define below, don’t always require the employee to hold a security clearance, but they may supervise those who do. The real issue motivating the background checks for Public Trust employment?
Basically the same as with jobs that require a Secret clearance or any other type–the federal government wants to know the employee can be trusted with sensitive information that may not necessarily be classified but can still cause damage if misused, mishandled, leaked, left exposed, etc.
Background Checks In General
The background check is a typical part of applying for certain jobs in the military and the federal government. To outsiders the process can feel daunting and intrusive–which it may be. But it is a requirement for many and the process is standardized to a great extent. In modern times, many of the variables involve how the applicant responds to the process.
Who is required to get a background check? At the federal level, these investigations are required for “all employees and applicants for employment with the DoD and individuals who perform work for, or on behalf of, a Federal agency,” according to DoD literature.
Background checks for Public Trust jobs are similar in many respects to the version performed for security clearances. The difference is often in the level of intensity (the Top Secret clearance would naturally be more intensive than the Confidential level, for example) and in the types of forms required for Public Trust investigations.
Forms that may be required for a Public Trust background check can include:
- SF-85, Questionnaire for Non-Sensitive Positions
- SF-85P, Questionnaire for Public Trust Positions
- SF-50, Notification of Personnel Action
- SF-52, Request for Personnel Action
For the purpose of Public Trust investigations, the level of intensity depends on the level of risk associated with the job–low, medium or high risk.
What Is A Public Trust Position?
The Department of Defense publishes a handbook for civilian employees known as a “Suitability Guide.” This publication, among many other things, defines the DoD view of “public trust” jobs.
Section 2.6, “What Is A Public Trust Position” states that these jobs “require a much higher degree of integrity with unwavering public confidence.” That’s typical DoD-speak to be sure, but what specifically do these jobs require?
The same document says such positions involve moderate to high risk in terms of being trusted with sensitive and classified information. “Public Trust positions include those involving policymaking, major program responsibility, and law enforcement duties” and more. They can also include:
- Immigration agents
- Customs And Border Protection agents
- Port officials
- Public safety works
- Health workers
- Federal police officers
- Contract managers
Let’s compare the Department of Defense view to a different U.S. government agency–the United States Geological Survey (USGS), which also has a section on its official site to explain why background checks may be required for those seeking employment with certain parts of that agency.
The USGS official site defines public trust positions as those, “…that perform work that involve a significant degree of public trust and confidence that the Federal official will carry out the work in accordance with applicable laws, regulations and guidelines”
Again, a bit general, but USGS goes on to say these jobs usually involve some kind of policy-making and/or “major program responsibilities, fiduciary (monetary) responsibilities, law enforcement positions and public safety and health duties.”
Public trust positions in both definitions also include work that requires access to private data proprietary systems, and other sensitive materials.
Do I Need Multiple Background Investigations?
Do federal employees who have multiple levels of responsibility require multiple background checks? In general, the employee should be evaluated in terms of the level of responsibility and get the investigation required for the highest level of clearance needed. A periodic reinvestigation may be required in certain cases, but these are generally performed as standard policy. You’ll be informed when a reinvestigation may be necessary due to the amount of time since the last background check, or based on changing job requirements.
What If I Take A Different Job Or Move To A New Federal Agency?
A great deal depends on the duties you will be required to perform at the new job and whether the same level of clearances or approval are required. Certain factors are considered when weighing the need to re-investigate an employee including:
- The type of investigation you’ve had before
- Clearances you held in the past
- Current job requirements
- Any investigation requirements in the current position
Clearances and investigations do not automatically travel with the employee to a new department, agency, or job. It must be accepted by the gaining agency or the background investigation may need to be reaccomplished.
The DoD Suitability Guide For Civilian Employees states that in “most cases” you won’t be asked to go through another background check when it’s already been established that you are suitable for the job you’re taking unless:
- There has been a break in service of more than 24 months
- The new job requires a higher level of investigation
- New information calls employee suitability into question
- The investigative record shows conduct that is incompatible with core duties of the job
What If Negative Information Is Revealed In The Background Check?
There’s no one-size-fits-all answer for issues like these–the government takes a holistic approach to the investigation, the employee’s service records, and performance on the job. The DoD position on negative results on a background check? Much depends on the nature of the information revealed:
- The nature and seriousness of the conduct
- Circumstances surrounding the conduct
- When the incident(s) occurred
- Contributing societal conditions
- Any attempts at habilitation
It will be up to the gaining agency to decide whether or not to proceed based on the information in the background investigation report.
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News