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Reflections on Standards

by Raymond Kammer

Feature
The departing Director of the Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology Raymond Kammer reflects on his years in that position, the NIST/ASTM partnership creating excellent voluntary consensus standards, and the achievement of a National Standards Strategy.

Since being confirmed by the Senate as the director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology in 1997, I have focused on several key challenges for the Institute, identifying where we could really make a difference for U.S. industry. One is ensuring that we are the world’s leaders in measurement research and capability. That should be no surprise to the ASTM readership. But I set another primary challenge that I believe to be of even greater interest to you: helping to ensure that the capabilities and standards are in place to support full and unfettered U.S. participation in global markets.

Among other things, meeting this challenge successfully means fostering the development of domestic voluntary standards needed by government and industry, while working with U.S. standards organizations, such as ASTM and the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), to improve the structure and operation of the voluntary standards development system. It also requires increasing our international work to ensure that U.S. standards are understood, respected, and accepted by our trading partners.

As I look back over my long career with NIST and the Department of Commerce, I can point with pride to some very positive changes that have occurred in the U.S. standards system—changes that will improve international access for U.S. industry while continuing to meet requirements to protect health, safety, and the environment for everyone. I also look back with great pleasure to a very productive and cooperative relationship with ASTM—including the privilege of serving on the ASTM Board of Directors in the late 1980s.

In fact, NIST and ASTM have a long history of strong technical interactions. Going back almost 100 years, NIST scientists and engineers have been active participants in ASTM technical committee life. That association has strengthened our contributions to the nation and major industries over the decades in areas ranging from glasses, particle sizes, petroleum, metals, statistics, and many other technical fields. Members of our staff have been honored with numerous awards from ASTM. For the ASTM technical committees and the NIST technical staff, their collective commitment to good science and engineering is the hallmark of U.S. know-how and preeminence in today’s high tech world. This is reflected in the standard specifications, test methods, practices, etc., that we’ve developed together for the benefit of this country and the rest of the world. This, to me, is our new National Standards Strategy put into practice!

The National Standards Strategy

Indeed, the creation of the National Standards Strategy under ANSI leadership was the highlight of the standards community’s achievements during the last several years. This effort really began at ASTM Headquarters, when I gave a speech to the ANSI board of directors in 1998, challenging ANSI members to work together to create a national strategy. In the following years ASTM played a key role in its development, by hosting and participating in the facilitated workshops that identified issues and began to create the strategy. All the members of the standards community worked together: we collaborated, we cooperated, and we compromised. The result will be a lasting, beneficial contribution to the national economy. I think that this ultimate payoff is what motivated all of us to take on the challenge of developing a National Standards Strategy.

I emphasize that we need to stay motivated, because it’s not “all over but for the celebrating.” The big payoff is still down the road. We—by which I mean the private and public sectors together—still have a long way to go. We must carry our momentum forward and successfully implement the strategy.

Of course, that’s much more easily said than done. But we have a clear objective: We are aiming for a U.S. standards system that is better organized, more efficient, and more collaborative than ever before. We want the nation to extract maximum benefit from our effective, yet decentralized standards system—a system in which representatives from industry, academia, consumer organizations and government collaborate to create the best possible technical standards. We want to be sure that we can speak with an informed and respected voice in the global market so that U.S. input is considered fairly and our technology incorporated when it meets global market needs. And we want the sound principles (consensus, openness, balance, and due process) upon which our system is founded—and to which ASTM members, along with those of other U.S. standards developing organizations, are deeply committed—to be adopted internationally.

The National Standards Strategy provides the framework for achieving these goals, both domestically and in the international arena. We have plenty of evidence that standards are important to the economy, to industrial competitiveness, and to innovation. Without standards for product specifications, test methods, and protocols, our industrial capabilities would collapse. The strategy will help the standards community to initiate change. As we all know, the forces of change are swirling all around the standards world. Boundaries that separate nations are blurring, while industry sectors are converging. New technologies are creating competitive upheaval, yet nations and regions still use local standards as barriers to products.

The apple cart is continually being upset, and it seems that everyone is on the lookout for strategic advantage. In the midst of this upheaval, users want standards to be developed faster; many want them to be distributed for free, over the Internet. They want to eliminate divergent requirements and duplicate requests for participation. In short, there is great demand for more added value and less duplication, confusion, and cost.

These were the reasons that led ANSI, ASTM, and NIST—to name only a few players—to launch the successful effort to develop a National Standards Strategy for the United States.

In the National Strategy, we have agreed on mutual goals that will eliminate pointless disagreements, to work with our colleagues and trading partners in advance of meetings to further mutual technical interests, and to commit ourselves to participate on a regular basis in the critical activities of technical committees. We have also agreed to pursue sectoral approaches when one size doesn’t fit all. Key to the strategy is the commitment to make the standards process serve industry needs, while ensuring continued strong commitment to health, safety, and protection of the environment at both national and international levels. Now, each and every sector must implement the objectives of the strategy, while continuing our cooperation and collaboration.

Federal Role in the NSS

At the federal level, for example, the National Standards Strategy provides important guidance for NIST and all agencies for their future activities, both domestically and internationally. As part of the implementation, the federal government will continue to fulfill the goals of the National Technology Transfer and Advancement Act of 1995. The Interagency Committee on Standards Policy, which is charged with implementing both this law and the executive branch guidance delineated in the OMB A119 Circular, has already announced its support for the National Standards Strategy as government policy.

I note that federal agencies are complying with the law in ever greater numbers. Agencies now rely heavily on voluntary standards, withdraw competing federal standards, and refrain from developing agency-unique standards to the extent possible. Federal progress will only improve.

We all, however, must continue to monitor with concern and then address the decline in federal participation in voluntary standards activities. NIST is continuing to educate government personnel at all levels about the benefits of the voluntary consensus standards process and the need to participate in developing standards that meet national needs. NIST is also working to ensure that the best of electronic information technology is used to support coordination of positions and standards-related activities among federal agencies. Federal agencies are supporting process improvements in the development of voluntary, consensus standards in our interactions with other governments. NIST is working to improve our trading partners’ understanding of the use of U.S. voluntary consensus standards in regulations and procurements, to broaden the acceptance of the U.S. approach to standards development and use.

Recently, NIST promulgated a standards policy that directs our senior management to incorporate standards activities into employee performance plans; we recently revised the criteria for a major NIST award to recognize participation in voluntary standards activities. These steps go a long way to reversing the current undervaluing of standards activities and could serve as a model for other agencies and organizations.

The International Community

Yet the biggest challenge to implementing the U.S. strategy is presented to us by the international community. It is clear that we in the United States must continue to work together to meet the challenges provided by those whose approach to standards differs from ours—to help them understand the validity and values of our process-based system, which is open to all interested parties and rooted in consensus. We need to continue discussions with those who regard the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) as the only “international” standards, and ensure that technically sound U.S. standards continue to be used worldwide. At the same time, we must work to open up the processes in ISO and IEC so that they are as fair and transparent as possible and meet both global and U.S. needs. We know that manufacturing and the marketplace have become truly global, and this is forcing the use of common, globally accepted standards.

Regional and international trade entities, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the Asia-Pacific Economic Coooperative (APEC), the European Union (EU), and the World Trade Organization (WTO), are setting up rules to facilitate free trade, which typically include requirements for common standards and conformity assessment practices to support industry, health, safety, and protection of the environment worldwide. These changes put pressure on the United States and the rest of the world to develop a better approach—not necessarily to conform with the practice of other nations, but certainly to ensure that the best technology and an open approach to standards development are embedded in standards that are used internationally.

ASTM has taken a leadership role by working with ISO on a pilot project on standards for food irradiation that will allow simultaneous processing of a set of these standards through both the ASTM and the ISO processes. As a result, the United States now has three pilot projects with ISO, including those recently approved with IEEE and API. These provide a different way of achieving global standards, and a new model that may benefit the world community. ASTM is to be commended for its leadership. Working for positive changes at the international level will continue to require such vision and direction.

The challenge for the United States for the 21st century is to turn its capabilities and achievements toward greater leadership with regard to the standards and operational structures needed by the global market. Meeting this challenge requires coordinated policy development among U.S. industry, U.S. government agencies, and U.S. voluntary standards bodies. It also requires developing strategic alliances with our counterparts around the world to develop standards that reflect Asian, European, Latin American, African, and North American interests. ASTM has again shown leadership by inviting participation by representatives from outside the United States on the ASTM Board of Directors. I hope that Fabio Tobon of ICONTEC in Colombia and Luis-Felipe Ordonez of Aislantes Minerales in Mexico will find their experiences on the ASTM Board of Directors as stimulating and rewarding as I did.

The United States has an incredible opportunity to work with the international community to incorporate sound U.S. principles into the standards used worldwide. The National Standards Strategy pushes us to greater leadership in the global arena—to ensure that future standards and conformity assessment infrastructures will meet industry and regulatory needs without the need for extensive retesting of products. It will help us level the international playing field, and secure the high-level industry backing needed by the standards community.

I look forward to ASTM, ANSI, NIST, and the entire U.S. standards community continuing to work together to develop and implement unified U.S. positions on technical and standards policy issues at the domestic and international levels. If we continue to progress as we have over the last several years, the future will be bright. Achieving this bright future, however, means effective implementation of the National Standards Strategy. NIST is committed to continue to work aggressively under the ANSI umbrella, with other federal agencies, standards bodies, consumers, and industry, to build on the great beginning we have made. Our partnership with ASTM will help NIST not only in the technical sphere, but also in closer collaboration with the U.S. standards community to meet and implement the challenges raised by the National Standards Strategy that we all worked so hard to develop. //

Copyright 2001, ASTM

Raymond Kammer, the retired director of NIST, has served as the director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology since his appointment by President Clinton in 1997. Prior to his appointment, Mr. Kammer served on an acting basis as the chief financial officer, the assistant secretary for administration and the chief information officer for the Department of Commerce.