Australian Federal Government Security Clearances – a guide for for beginners
I’m not an Australian federal government security insider who has to kill each person they have a conversation with.
In fact, I don’t even want to know what I’m not supposed to know and am happy walking past the squirrels disguised as flower pots in the back corner of Barton coffee shops.
I am, however, an experienced ICT recruiter who has focused on the Australian Federal Government ICT contractor market for the past twenty years and therefore I know a thing or two about security clearances, from an outsider’s perspective.
First thing I know is that for ICT professionals who have a federal government security clearance, it is as though they have been granted the keys to Canberra. While not exactly a secret handshake, a security clearance definitely opens doors and offers exclusive opportunities that others simply do not have access to. Which brings me to the second thing I know about federal government security clearances: if you don’t have one, you’re bound to perceive the whole arrangement as unfair. This becomes evident as soon as the out of town, non-cleared, ICT professional asks their federal government recruiter: “How do I get a security clearance?”
This is the very definition of the chicken-versus-egg paradox. You simply can’t get a security clearance without a job and (seemingly) you can get a (contract) job without a security clearance. You can only imagine how many times a recruiter has this conversation with a frustrated, non-cleared ICT professional, and how many emails recruiters receive which angrily point out that it is illegal to advertise only for applicants who have current security clearances and that, by law, even applicants without security clearances have to be considered.
To be clear, recruiters can’t consider non-security cleared applicants for roles that require security clearances because the security clearances take between 3 – 18 months to obtain.
The very point of federal government using ICT contractors is to have quick access to professional skills when required, not in 3 to 18 months’ time. The fact is that the time it takes for federal government security clearances to be granted means that non-cleared candidates are automatically disqualified for federal government contract roles that require clearances (in most cases).
Before I go on to further describing the Australian federal government security clearances and processes, I will give my best advice as to how to go about getting one if you don’t already have one. It’s much easier for ICT professionals to obtain an initial federal government security clearance via a new permanent position in Canberra rather than through a new contract position. If you’ve been a contractor for many years then you might not like hearing this, as it can be difficult to go back to permanent work after many years of contractor freedom (and reward).
Employers in Canberra, both private Vendors providing ICT services to federal government and the federal government themselves, are much more likely to put a new permanent employee through the federal government security clearance process than they are for a new contractor. In Canberra, employers expect their contractors to already have security clearances while they are willing to help their employees get cleared initially.
To obtain a federal government security clearance, a process needs to be sponsored by either a federal government Hiring Manager or a private company that is a listed member of the Defence Industry Security Panel (DISP). Once a sponsoring party has initiated the process, the Australian Government Security Vetting (AGSVA) issues the new employee a security pack in accordance to the level of security clearance being applied for. The new employee completes the detailed security information pack and submits back to the AGSVA which then enacts the appropriate security checking processes. An Australian federal government security clearance is then issued by the AGSVA and is dependent on the continued sponsorship of the Department or Vendor that initiated the clearance process.
The different levels of AGSVA security clearances and the approximate timeframes for processing of applications are:
Baseline – takes between 2 – 4 months (used to be called either Restricted, Protected or Highly Protected)
Negative Vetted 1 (NV1) – takes between 5 – 7 months (used to be called Secret)
Negative Vetted 2 (NV2) – takes between 6 – 8 months (or 2 – 3 months when upgrading from NV1) (used to be called Top Secret)
Positive Vetted (PV) – takes between 1 and 5 years (used to be called Top Secret – Positive Vetted)
Once a clearance is granted, they can often last quite a long time. BASELINE clearances, for example, are valid for more than 10 years. Higher level clearances require more frequent reviews.
If a cleared individual exits a position the clearance becomes deactivated, but can be reactivated within about a two week period once a new position (and new sponsor) is found.
Just to complicate things a bit, both the Australian Federal Police and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade have their own clearance processes outside of the AGSVA. However, clearances from the AFP, DFAT and AGSVA can often be transferred between organisations generally within a 2 – 4-week period.
Additionally, some federal government departments have an additional layer of security clearance that is required for their specific environments.
I hope this sheds some light on how Australian federal government security works. If you’re an ICT professional and you have questions, why not contact us, we’ll be happy to help.