Ottawa

Security clearance delays sideline federal IT contractors

People who fix and maintain computer systems in the federal government say the process to get security clearance in recent years is taking too long and shutting them out of work.

Security clearance taking years, not months, forcing contractors to turn to employment insurance.

IT networking specialist Rodney Mockler said it has taken Public Works almost a year to process his security clearance application. (Julie Ireton/CBC)

People who fix and maintain computer systems in the federal government say the process to get security clearance in recent years is taking too long and shutting them out of work.

When Rodney Mockler's security clearance expired last year, the agencies he worked for reapplied for his certificate. But he said it's now been almost a year.

"What I'm depending on is that security clearance for many jobs, many job offers that I could have, [that] I could be working at tomorrow," said Mockler, who specializes in IT networking and has worked for a variety of agencies over the past five years including Environment Canada, Public Works and Government Services Canada and Canada Post.

Many government IT jobs are now filled by contractors who must get the appropriate security clearance before they can start work.

Contractors like Mockler tell CBC News this process used to take a couple of weeks, but now they're waiting many months — even years — to get clearance.

'It took a lot of red tape to get to the finish line'

Mockler says without security clearance he had to go on employment insurance. He said when he explained the problem to EI officials and asked for their help, they said there was nothing they could do.

'[I asked] so what do I do? 'You stay on unemployment until your clearance comes through.' I'm here now, a year later with no security clearance," he said.

It's Ottawa, you can't get a job unless you have one.- Retired Canadian Forces member and IT professional Thomas Chester

Fortunately, Mockler said he recently got a job with an organization that doesn't require the government security clearance.

Thomas Chester, a retired member of the Canadian Forces, says he waited two years before finally getting his clearance in April.

"It's Ottawa, you can't get a job unless you have one," said Chester. He says the renewal took much longer than it used to. "It took a lot of red tape to get to the finish line."

NDP's Dewar blames delays on departmental cuts

Ottawa-Centre MP, Paul Dewar says several IT contractors have come to his office, looking for help and answers.  

"We've put in numerous phone calls, questions to Public Works, to minister offices, all we've gotten back is they'll just have to do the best they can with what they've have. In other words, no help at all," said Dewar.

Dewar says departmental staff members have told him, off-the-record, that they are also frustrated with the situation.

"This is about cuts and this is about how these cuts Conservatives have made are affecting not only people going to work, but actual projects people are trying to do, and that's costing money…Those projects are being put on hold," said Dewar.

Public Works says it is working to reduce backlogs

The federal government issued 147 IT jobs last year to outside consultancies, according to Public Works and Government Services Canada. But the ministry did not have a breakdown of the number of individual consultants it employed.

Public Works said its service standard for classified clearance checks was to complete them within 75 business days for 80 per cent of its requests, and acknowledged that the department right now is reaching the 75 day-benchmark only 72 per cent of the time.

The department said it was close to reaching its service standards for simple checks and exceeding its standards for complex checks, such as those that require fingerprint checks.

But Public Works acknowledged it had put in measures "to reduce backlogs resulting from volume increases."

"These measures include hiring staff and streamlining processes," said a Public Works spokesperson.

The department spokesperson also noted that when requests are made before current clearances expire, Public Works will maintain the clearance until a new assessment is completed.

Agencies often apply on behalf of contractors

IT contractors such as Chester and Mockler who take jobs in the federal government must work through an employment agency. These middleman agencies must apply for security clearance on behalf of the individual contractor.

"For instance, If Excel approaches me with a job offer. I then agree to it. They would then go through the process to get that clearance for me. I cannot apply for security clearance on my own behalf," said Mockler.  

Mockler has been asked to fill contracts with several agencies so right now, four different companies are seeking clearance for him.

"All four were deposited October, November, December last year," said Mockler. "It's equally as frustrating for placement agencies. But they are frustrated because they're losing money as well."

CBC contacted several staffing firms in Ottawa.

None was willing to speak on the record about the federal government's process, but one executive said that any communication with the government is one-way with no feedback.

"It's hard to get any answers, we can't find a real person," said the executive. "It's frustrating."

About the Author

Julie Ireton

Senior Reporter

Julie Ireton is a senior reporter who works on investigations and enterprise news features at CBC Ottawa. She's also the host of the new CBC investigative podcast, The Band Played On. You can reach her at julie.ireton@cbc.ca

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