Tag Archive | "Security Clearance"

It’s been a difficult year for many but not a disastrous one, overall.

So this is Christmas, and what have we done? Well, speaking personally, quite a lot in one way and another. But it has been a funny old year in some ways.

Last December I was being optimistic about the Coalition making significant changes in various things. I was cautious about IR35, thinking they wouldn’t be a position to repeal it out of hand, but I didn’t expect young Osborne to come out in the Budget with the statement that he needs to keep IR35 to prevent abuses of the system. Which is kind of where we came in.

He did set up the Office of Tax Simplification though, and from there has sprung the IR35 Forum. The former has turned into something of a toothless wonder, getting ever more bogged down in detail. The more cynical among us might be tempted to suggest that this is because a lot of the parties around that table have something of a commercial interest in keeping IR35 exactly where it is, but that would be an unworthy thought. Wouldn’t it….

The IR35 Forum is still to produce anything but it looks like it can at least claim it has a direction and an intent that its parent body is sadly lacking. However we won’t really know much more until the next Budget.

In reality the best we can hope for is that IR35 remains as is, but Hector is rather more competent at judging who to stick under its microscope.

The Agency Workers Regulations arrived and caught all the agencies by surprise – hey, they only had a year’s warning, so what do you expect – leading to a flurry of letters demanding that you declare yourself outside its scope. Tricky, when anyone is potentially inside its scope and we have no case law to work with. Plus can change as they say.

The Cabinet Office was presented with a major paper on Security Clearance following a detailed, wide-ranging research project led by PCG, who highlighted what’s wrong with the system and, perhaps more importantly, what damage is being done. And even some options for how to fix it. This has been very well received and personally I am delighted, having been pressing for this kind of thing to happen for around eight years now.

Several IR35 appeals were completed, all but one of which were found to be outside, so reinforcing the status quo if not setting any new precedents. The other was the one I wrote about just last week, where the guy was found to be outside and then outside, all in the same contract. I think we’ll park that one in the folder marked “Say What?” and just forget about it.

The Market: now that’s interesting. The financial sector suffered an almost universal 10% rate cut during the year, with a few going even further. The rest of the world, however, seems to be plodding along at the same level. Lots of contractor layoffs and enforced holidays as well – again, only in finance. There are nowhere near as many jobs as they were, and rather more people chasing them, but you have to say that, taken as a whole, things aren’t as bad as some were predicting. The job losses seem to have been in the permanent market, so you have to conclude that UK PLC is sticking with easily-disposable temporary resources until they can see the light at the end of the tunnel. A light which is most likely to be a train coming the other way, if the pundits are to be believed.

And best news of all – our favourite MP and failed tax evader, the fragrant Ms Primarolo, is standing down at the next election.

So it’s been a difficult year for many but not a disastrous one, overall. Speaking for myself I’ve been gainfully employed most of the year, and am hopeful of that continuing a while longer. I’m looking forward to a week off eating and drinking far too much – and not having to face a sheet of blank A4 on Thursday night – before having to face the 7:15 from Bristol in the bleak midwinter again.

Have a good one.

About the author: Alan Watts

Alan has worked in IT for most of the last 35 years, and first went freelance in 1996. He has been a PCG member from its start and has been spreading the message that freelancing is a professional career choice for many years. Alan also runs Malvolio’s Blog, a personal but highly informative take on the life of the modern freelance.

Alan Watts, Principal Consultant, LPW Computer Services

© 2011 All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.

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I’ve been having a rather quiet week, for some reason, although there have been two notable successes.

Work seems to have hit one of those periodic phases where I’ve done all I can and am now waiting for assorted other (and rather more busy) people to review what I’ve been doing. Of course when they do I go back to not having enough time in the day to do everything, of course. Still it keeps you off the streets.

To fill in some of the yawning gaps in the working day – well, while I’m eating my lunchtime sandwich, anyway – I’ve been reading a series of “Focus on…” briefing papers the PCG has produced in time for the party conference season. These cover a range of subjects, most if not all of which I may have touched on myself in here, from ICT abuse to IR35 to the soon-to-be-infamous AWR.

But the one that is closest to my heart, having been banging on about since early 2003, is the one on Security Clearance. Well not clearance itself, which does exactly what it is supposed to do, but the whole tangled Catch-22 of trying to get it and why it is doing a whole segment of contractors and a whole segment of government work a major disservice by denying access for the former to the latter.

In effect, clearance status overrides competency. No wonder so many public sector contracts go so wrong.

Anyway. The one thing I might take issue with in the paper is the claim by the Cabinet Office that clearance process times are coming down significantly. They quote Cerberus as the reason why: you may recall me talking about Cerberus recently.

OK, so you will forgive the hollow laugh.

My clearance – a humble CTC, mind you, nothing too heavy – finally turned up this week. That’s precisely 147 days since I submitted the original application back in May. Or, to put it another way, a mere 112 days over the stated SLA for processing CTC clearances in 85% of cases. And given I’ve worked several cleared roles over the years, including a stint in the Cabinet Office, you might suppose that mine would have been in the 85% range.

But a slight clue as to what may be going wrong is in the email I got telling me the clearance had come through. We’ve been badgering the client for weeks about my situation and how difficult it is for a one man band like me to work when I can’t move around the building. When they got the nod, they passed it over immediately. At which point I discovered that the clearance runs from 12th of August.

In other words, it’s taken a month for DVA to tell my end client that I’d been cleared. Brilliant…

Anyway, I rush down to the office to get the badge, fill out yet another piece of paper (a blue one this time) and present myself to the lady wot does. “Oh sorry”, says she, “Our badge printer is broken. Can you come back tomorrow?” Aaarrghhh…

Never mind, all done now. My coffee consumption has quadrupled overnight. Success…

Oh yes, the other success. Got off the train last night and was walking through the ticket hall at the station – the ticket hall, note, full of rush-hour people and manifestly not the car park or the approach road – and was confronted by some middle-aged GoreTex-clad loon in a silly plastic hat riding his bicycle through the crowds towards my not insubstantial presence. I was so flabbergasted I simply stopped still in front of him. At which point he suddenly realised I was there and did a sharp left. Straight into one of Mr Brunel’s rather substantial stone pillars. Didn’t do his front wheel a lot of good, although his stupid hat did stop him smacking his head on it. Shame…

Sadly I left before the advancing and rather irate-looking railway official had words with him. But strike one for the pedestrians.

About the author: Alan Watts

Alan has worked in IT for most of the last 35 years, and first went freelance in 1996. He has been a PCG member from its start and has been spreading the message that freelancing is a professional career choice for many years. Alan also runs Malvolio’s Blog, a personal but highly informative take on the life of the modern freelance.

Alan Watts, Principal Consultant, LPW Computer Services

© 2011 All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.

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I can’t be trusted to get to the Gents and back without an escort

Remember me talking about Cerberus, some while ago? Not the three-headed guardian of the underworld, but the new e-forms system that the Defence Vetting Authority launched with great fanfare – well, great fanfare in the world of security clearance, anyway, o actually it was quite understated – to speed up the whole clearance process.

Guess what. It hasn’t actually worked as advertised. Quelle surprise…

121 days ago I clicked “Submit” on my electronic Cerberus application form, having recently started at the current gig for a client that requires genuine clearance. Ever since I’ve been logging on to the portal to see what’s happening, and have always been presented with the somewhat cryptic message “In progress”. Which means my file is still dragging its way through the labyrinthine machinations of the clearance process. For CTC clearance.

(For those of you unfamiliar with the clearance grades, there are basically four levels: BPSS, meaning “You are who you say you are”, CTC, meaning “We know you are who you say you are”, SC, meaning “We really do know you are”, and DV, which means “Not only do we know who you are, but we know who your friends are as well”.)

So CTC is not exactly the most difficult thing in the world to check for. In fact the DVA’s own service level states that they will process 85% of CTC applications in 30 days. So, one might assume, something has gone a little astray. However, I can’t check that since, despite my having access to the Portal to see where I’m up to, I can’t actually ask any questions, that has to come from the sponsor. So that doesn’t really help. Nor does the interesting statistic that DVA are processing 250,000 clearance requests a year. Which seems rather a lot.

So what does this actually mean? Now there’s an interesting question.

The client’s own rules say that I can’t have a building pass without clearance. So I can’t get past the front desk in the morning without an escort, my laptop bag (and carrier bag of Waitrose sandwiches) have to go through the scanner, I can’t get to the coffee shop by myself, I can’t visit the Gents and I can’t get out at the end of the day. I certainly can’t wander down the corridor to talk to my various colleagues about assorted problems, which, given I do Service Design and have to understand the end-to-end details of things, is something of a limitation.

Bizarrely, what I can do is read and review a host of technical information about the client’s infrastructure. I can talk to their staff about requirements, including discussions on access rights to services. In short, I can see all the information that clearance is intended to protect. Which, to be fair, is in the rules; someone has done a risk assessment and decided I can be trusted with that information. Which I can; after all I’ve held high level clearance before, several times.

And I’m not the only one. Until very recently one of our Technical Design people had the same problem, and he gets a lot closer to the detail than I ever need to.

So a bit of a disconnect in the process them. Basically I can do everything I need to do and read anything I need to read but I can’t be trusted to get to the Gents and back without an escort. And I’m getting just a bit too old to want people to hold my hand while I do so.

But don’t get me wrong. I take this security clearance issue very seriously indeed. I’ve been closely involved in getting the rules clarified and applied properly for several years. The rules are totally realistic and justifiable and offer a degree of protection that I fully support. But someone somewhere in the client’s security management team really needs to lift their head from JSP440 and apply just a little common sense. Don’t they?

About the author: Alan Watts

Alan has worked in IT for most of the last 35 years, and first went freelance in 1996. He has been a PCG member from its start and has been spreading the message that freelancing is a professional career choice for many years. Alan also runs Malvolio’s Blog, a personal but highly informative take on the life of the modern freelance.

Alan Watts, Principal Consultant, LPW Computer Services

© 2011 All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.

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The three headed dog from hell or a huge step in the right direction?

I don’t know if anyone’s noticed, but there’s a bit of a revolution going on this weekend. Something I’ve been banging on about since early 2003 is facing a big and, to my eyes, rather significant change. And I bet 90% of the people it affects don’t even know about it.

It’s called Cerberus. OK, that’s a three headed dog from hell to some, but to others it’s a huge step change.

Cerberus is primarily a Case Management System to look after the security clearance of anyone who holds it or are put up for clearance in order to get work in any of the myriad HMG-sponsored roles that demand it. It’s aim is to simplify and standardise what is currently a fairly creaky and almost totally paper-based system.

I’ve spoken before (at great length, some may say…) about the Catch-22 of no clearance means no job but you can’t have the clearance without the job. This is especially true of contractors, who have to be able to take up new roles on fairly short order; permanent staff are usually (but not always) in a position to stay with the old job or otherwise sit around until they are allowed to start the new one. So contractors like me are the real victims of this situation to the extent that I was not allowed to apply for a role a while back to implement a system I’d designed while I was cleared, since my clearance had lapsed in the interim.

The reason for this is the blind insistence from many agencies and more than a few prime contractors is that clearance takes forever to come through and without it you can’t work. And since the rules are that you can apply for clearance without a sponsor, the net effect is the aforementioned Catch-22, and the jobs on offer go to the same old circle of those inside the fence.

But this is wrong on several counts.

Firstly the main clearance agencies have been working to get their existing systems much more efficient. DVA, who look after the MOD, routinely clear 95% of SC clearances in less than 30 days and can fast track them in as little as 10. Again using me as the example, I was cleared by one of the constabularies to the same level in two weeks flat. So time is not really an issue.

Secondly you don’t need clearance to start the job, most of the time. The basic level of BPSS is not a million miles away from the kind of ID and residency checks we are routinely asked to do for any role. BPSS allows you to access material marked up to “Restricted”, which is around 90% of it. There are a very few exceptions, where informed supervision can’t be given, and until your full clearance comes through you will have to be collected from the front gate and taken back to it, but that’s hardly a major barrier to overcome.

And finally if you only ever take your workers from the same limited gene pool, how are you ever going to improve? Hoe many projects have failed because of the lack of up-to-date skills and practices I wonder.

Cerberus will bring all the clearance records into a single database, supported by on-line e-forms to replace the paperwork. All the various clearance agencies will have access to it, led by DVA and the Home Office equivalent, which makes everything far more traceable and, more importantly, transferable (my police clearance is not accepted by DVA, even though the police checks are actually slightly more rigorous. Go figure…)

So a big step forward. The target is to get SC clearance down to 15 days and CTC to less than a week. Let’s just hope the agencies notice…

About the author: Alan Watts

Alan has worked in IT for most of the last 35 years, and first went freelance in 1996. He has been a PCG member from its start and has been spreading the message that freelancing is a professional career choice for many years. Alan also runs Malvolio’s Blog, a personal but highly informative take on the life of the modern freelance.

Alan Watts, Principal Consultant, LPW Computer Services

© 2011 All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited<

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That was the year that was

And, I have to say, quite a successful one, perhaps unexpectedly given where we started from. Speaking strictly as a freelance contractor of course, I thought it appropriate to round off 2010 with my slightly biased view of how the year has gone. So here goes with a very personal summary of the key events.

The main one, of course, has to be the replacement of Gordon the Glum with a real person. You may not like CallMeDave but you have to agree he’s an improvement on his predecessor: OK, not if you’re Ed Balls or Piers Morgan of course, but who listens to them anyway…?

We’ve gone from a Government that was totally and utterly convinced they knew best how to spend your money to one who was perfectly happy to let you spend it how you wanted. Of course, there wasn’t all that much to spend and they were going to have to hang on to even more of it than before. But let’s not be picky; at least we know why they’re being so mean.

So let’s look at the good things…

ICTs and the abuse thereof. Something I may have mentioned once or twice before? Leaving aside the wider question of uncontrolled immigration, there is a clear intent by HMG to cut down the number of workers coming in to the country to undercut the local workforce. Of course we are never going to stop companies using the cheapest labour they can find, that’s all part of capitalism and globalisation, but at least someone is trying to make it a bit harder to get us to train them how to do take our jobs away and kill off the industry at its source. Which, ultimately, has to be a good thing?

We still labour (geddit, geddit…?) under the Damoclean threat of IR35 of course. I never shared the conviction of some that a Tory government – oops, sorry, a Coalition led by the Tories – would instantly delete IR35 from the statute book. That was never going to happen; there is a political justification for IR35 that, while utterly barking, is not going to be reversed in any meaningful way.

Obviously the establishment of the OTS, and its very clear directive to look at IR35 as a priority was highly welcome. Even more welcome was the PCG gaining an influential seat on the Consultative Committee of the OTS looking at small business taxation. An organisation with 20,000 members and a 10 year lifespan gaining such access and respect at that level is something that simply cannot be underestimated. The OTS is working to some impossible deadlines, but fingers crossed, progress is being made.

The job market certainly seems to be picking up. I’m seeing hugely more jobs in my scope that I saw this time last year. Of course, 95% of them I won’t bother going for because the hirers are demanding impossibly tight lists of skills, industry knowledge and qualifications. The agencies are still incapable of challenging them and offering alternatives. For example I’ve been tracking a discussion on LinkedIn about how to use shared services and/or outsourcing to save money in Local Government. Good idea and one that may well work. Sadly, the consensus is that it won’t happen because the hirers put Local Government knowledge well ahead of any business experience that means you might actually understand how to do it properly. You see the same thing in Finance, which is a real shame since that’s where the work is. And don’t get me started on Security Clearance.

Oh, and I nearly forgot. St Vince of Cable has shown himself to be every bit as incisive, astute and intellectually superior as I always thought he was…

Personally it’s not been a bad year. I’ve worked most of it and actually banked a profit, which is nice. There is certainly reason to be optimistic about next year. The PCG continue to make great strides forward which is a source of pride, even from my marginal input to that progress. And I’ve had some nice comments about this blog, which proves that at least people are reading it, even if they don’t agree with me.

So roll on 2011. I think it could be an interesting year. I’ll see you there…

Alan Watts can found at LinkedIn.
© 2010 All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.

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Motion vs. progress?

Usually I find one thing to talk about each week; even in the depths of the silly season there is something relevant to freelancing worth trying to write a few hundred words about. This week, for some reason, I haven’t found a single thing. Perhaps I’ve been a bit too busy to notice – you could say the current client presents some interesting challenges – but I have tried. Honest…

The main event in the news – well, the BBC version of the news so it really must be important – is all about the Millibands and the will-he-won’t-he tedium of will big brother work with little brother or not (and he won’t, it seems). Sorry but from here I really don’t care that much. While Her Majesty’s Opposition is an important element of the government process, precisely who wears the various labels in the Shadow Cabinet is actually fairly irrelevant. Unless you’re interested in who fights the next election, which is far enough away to be of zero interest, I’m afraid. And anyway, I’m a contractor; there are far more important things to worry about.

One of them is a bit of a debate on EBTs. I’ve said before that these may be a good thing for some but you have to go in with your eyes really wide open. The risks are just that bit too high if you don’t fully understand the scheme and, equally importantly, the government’s attitude to them. My point is that since HMG have effectively shut down EBTs from next year, people who sign up to one now are at a considerably higher risk of investigation than those who have been using them for some time. This, for some people, seems to be an unreasonable position. Heigh ho…

There’s been another discussion on Security Clearances and the old Catch-22 of no clearance no job, no job no clearance. Somehow this has mutated into a discussion about how clearance works. That’s really not what it’s about, the process and the parameters work well and are pretty effective. All I’m really interested in is being allowed to get in front of the hiring manager to sell my services, which is something that I and a majority of other contractors can’t do at the moment. I’m more than happy to take my chances of persuading a hirer that I’m worth the effort of sponsoring for clearance, but I can’t do that if I can’t ever get to meet them.

And of course the whole visa issue rumbles on. This is getting increasingly confused, not helped by a certain Mr. Cable’s interventions. Nobody is saying we shouldn’t allow ICTs; there are plenty of instances where they are entirely justifiable. However, when you consider that some of the people complaining about the proposed cap on them haven’t actually used the ones they are allowed to use, just what is the problem? Apart from reading that a small number of companies from one country have brought in several thousands under ICT visas. The argument is not about ICTs, it’s about misuse of ICTs. Some supposedly well informed people will insist on missing that minor detail.

So, lots of motion, not a lot of progress. Bit like the current contract, really.

Alan Watts can found at LinkedIn.
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Security clearance finally cleared up?

Back in 2002 I kicked off a bit of a debate about the Catch-22 situation regarding jobs that need people with security clearance. It’s a Catch-22 in that you can’t have clearance without the job and you can’t get the job if you haven’t got clearance.

Actually that’s not strictly true. You can work on most secure sites without clearance under supervision. More to the point, there is no reason why you can’t apply for a job simply because you don’t have clearance. That’s actually a bit of an urban myth. Sadly, though, many hiring managers and most if not all agencies take the line that no clearance means there’s no point in applying so don’t waste my time.

What really got me started on this whole issue was being told I couldn’t apply for a role with the MOD. Annoyed because 14 months earlier I’d written the strategic plan that they now wanted implementing. But my clearance had lapsed so I was no longer eligible to apply.

How stupid is that?

This is all a bit of a shame because it means that a lot of good, qualified candidates fall by the wayside at the first hurdle. If high quality candidates actually got to the interview stage, chances are that their lack of clearance would quickly cease to be a problem.

Anyway the argument rumbled on for a while. I put a white paper together that the PCG took forward and we had a significant success when the Cabinet Office, who manages this whole area, published a clarification of how the rules are meant to work. Copies of this clarification went to various key bodies, including REC who passed in on to the agencies.

Guess what? Nothing changed. Gosh…

PCG continued to debate the issue with the Cabinet Office, however, and it became apparent over time that both sides were actually in violent agreement. The rules are clear, unambiguous and entirely reasonable. They even allow for situations where you can only take on a cleared person; that’s about 5% of the jobs mind, so not really a big issue.

In fact we are so much in agreement that we now have a Prime Ministerial Statement on the subject (details can be found on the PCG website) that goes through them all over again, explains in some detail how the whole system works – or, at least, is supposed to work – and emphasises that this is not being done for fun. HMG are very serious about the problems this is causing them. So serious, in fact, that this is the first such statement since 1994.

So it will be interesting to see what, if anything, changes. After eight years of beating this particular drum, I’m not actually that confident we will see any changes at all. The agencies are too risk averse to even think about changing their model, most of the agents themselves are so convinced that you must have clearance that they’ll take no notice and already I’ve seen claims that “it’s not us it’s the clients and we’re only following orders”. Tell me, agencies; doesn’t all your publicity stress that your prime selling point is that you put forward the best candidates for the jobs? Hmmm….

I suspect this particular battle is far from won and we will need to keep up the fight. One day the majority of UK contractors who haven’t got clearance will be allowed to apply for the large number of jobs that require it that are only ever offered to the minority, but that day is a fair way off even now.

Still, if it was easy, it wouldn’t be fun, would it? To quote someone who presumably understood security quite well, we’ll keep buggering on.

Alan Watts can found found at LinkedIn.
© 2010 All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.

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Now for the good news…

The Conservative’s manifesto for business was released today. In among all the detail was a commitment to encourage the use of Open Source in HMG contracts, which is nice.

However they also are talking about breaking HMG contracts down into smaller pieces so SMEs can get in on the action, rather than being swamped by the Big 5 consultancies all the time.

This is seriously good news on several fronts. For one thing it is an exact match to something the PCG have in their own manifesto. That means that at least one party has read what the PCG wrote and, more importantly, acted upon it. It also puts pressure on the other parties to take note and maybe recognise the smaller businesses are every bit as capable as the big ones. Well we knew that anyway, I’ve yet to work not a Big 5 contract that wasn’t held together by a bunch of freelancers.

Even if that doesn’t reach as far down as the one-man band companies like mine, it does open the door to things like collaborative ventures and what I call the Virtual Consultancy, a small group of freelancers working together and pooling skills to deliver a piece of work. Provided, that is, you can get through the hurdle of the paperwork – have you ever tried to fill out a PQQ – and can agree how your little consortium is going to work and don’t get stuffed by some spurious demands for security clearance.

Still, small steps but, in this case, highly significant ones. Let’s see if the other parties have the courage to follow suit. And maybe actually deliver what they promised. Now that would be a first…

Elsewhere, life carries on as normal. The usual drip feed of questions from people who ideally should know more than they do on various forums. If I’ve seen one question about the 24 month rule this week I’ve seen a dozen, and I can’t keep referring them to an article I wrote a while back explaining it all. Or perhaps the other one I wrote, about how many people set up limited companies with no idea of what it entails in terms of knowledge and responsibilies.

It also occurred to me, reading some of these posts, that we have a fair number of contractors who have never known life without IR35, and who accept it as part of the landscape. Now that does wind me up more than a little; IR35 is no less of an abomination just because it’s there.

Now that would be a good entry in the Tory’s manifesto – a clear commitment to remove IR35 form the statute book. What, do you suppose, are the chances…?

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