Vetting better: how we turned around the UK Vetting Service

Turning around UKSV from a failing, beleaguered service has been arduous but inspirational, says Trish Dreghorn
Source: Adobe Stock

By Trish Dreghorn

24 May 2024

When I took over the leadership of UK Security Vetting back in 2021, I heard plenty of negative comments about it: the performance of the service, the perceived intrusiveness, the lack of focus on diversity and inclusion within the process, and the outdated IT. However, I also heard one common message: “UKSV has struggled since its inception, but one thing it does have is great, talented, passionate people.”  Our turnaround over the last 12 months can be entirely attributed to these hardworking and committed colleagues. 

Just over a year ago we were in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. UKSV, the largest government provider of national security clearances, was failing to meet any of its service level agreements. Following a critical National Audit Office report, I faced questioning from the Public Accounts Committee alongside government chief security officer Vincent Devine and Sir Alex Chisholm, then permanent secretary in the Cabinet Office. Holding a security clearance is a requirement across many roles and professions, so the speed and quality of our work impacts a vast range of public services. 

I am delighted to say that today, processing times for all national security clearances are back within agreed levels and backlogs have been cleared without compromising on assurance. We are making headway with the longer-term reform of vetting to create a world class, modernised, digitally enabled service for the future. Behind this turnaround is a story of 12 months of incredible hard work, engagement and adaptability by our people. 

The NAO report acknowledged a history of under-resourcing and legacy issues since UKSV was formed in 2017 from MOD and FCDO services. In 2019, consultants McKinsey & Company described vetting as the “worst government shared service” and Deloitte even recommended closing UKSV down. 

To drive reform, UKSV moved out of MOD into the Cabinet Office’s Government Security Group in 2020, just as Covid hit. We emerged from the pandemic into a changed security landscape. Demand for security vetting soared by around 60% while staffing levels had fallen to 32% below the required headcount – just as we faced a recruitment freeze. Some of the most passionate and committed colleagues I have ever worked with were feeling abandoned, frustrated and constrained.

Despite successfully operating priority services for urgent issues such as the Ukraine crisis, and launching a new fully digital accreditation check for airside staff, turnaround times for routine cases had become unacceptable. The pressure was mounting for immediate action.

In response, during April 2023 we launched our Delivery Stabilisation Programme (DSP) and committed to recovering performance in three areas. Firstly for new Developed Vetting cases (DV Initials); secondly for Counter Terrorism Checks (CTC) and Security Checks (SC); and thirdly for Developed Vetting Renewals (DVR). All this was to be achieved within the financial year. 

We mobilised the DSP with four workstreams: People, Process, Technology and Performance.  Our first challenge was to align staffing levels to demand. Engaging stakeholders and securing customer support was vital.  We won approval to greatly increase our headcount and gained additional support from the HMRC Rapid Response Unit. This posed a significant challenge for our experienced staff, who needed to vet, induct, train and mentor their new colleagues. We centralised admin functions such as interview booking and collation of applicants’ documents, made greater use of digital solutions for written testimonies, and worked closely with policy teams in support of streamlined ways of working.

In June 2023 we had a huge morale boost when we achieved our first milestone: the recovery of DV Initials, which was particularly important to key customers such as MOD and FCDO. CTC and SC represent the vast majority of vetting cases by volume, and with our increased headcount and process improvements really making an impact, we saw these queues rapidly reduce and stabilise by November.

Our final milestone was DV Renewals. Every team within UKSV supported this final push, adapting to streamlined risk-focused processes and achieving record throughputs in January and February. We’re now in a position, for the first time in years, where all new DVR cases can be processed within the agreed timeframe. 

There have been many lessons from DSP, not least the resilience of the UKSV team. We’ve reformed our governance and  are much more joined up with our stakeholders,  which should let us maintain what we have achieved and build on it. I look forward to taking this collaborative culture forward as we now move to the next phase in co-creating the future of vetting. 

Trish Dreghorn has been CEO of UK Security Vetting since 2021. She was previously a Managing Director at Ofgem

Share this page