Who Needs It?
by Allan R. Mears
Considered the sine qua non of standardization for many decades,
the role of consensus is now questioned in our fast-paced world.
Allan Mears, retired from the British Standards Institution, looks
at the necessity of consensus in developing standards that meet
users needs for speed and reliability.
Consensus is commonly acknowledged to be the essential criterion
that distinguishes standards from other normative documents. It
is enshrined in the standardizers own vocabulary, ISO/IEC Guide 2
 (from which the definitions in quotes in this article are
taken), where the definition of the term standard begins document
established by consensus.
Is consensus really the principal criterion we think it to be?
This article examines this question in the light of the increase
in the production of new documents for public use with lower degrees
of consensus than traditional standards. These new deliverables
appeared first as consortia standards to specify products, following
collaboration among their manufacturers, and have since been developed
by some standards bodies. Their purpose is to meet the demand
for rapid delivery to keep up with the pace of product development.
What makes standards special? The full definition of the term
standard is document established by consensus and approved
by a recognized body, that provides for common and repeated use,
rules, guidelines, or characteristics for activities or their
results, aimed at the achievement of the optimum degree of order
in a given context.
This definition contains the following four distinct criteria:
Established by consensus;
Approved by a recognized body;
Provides for common and repeated use;
Aimed at the achievement of the optimum degree of order.
Do all of these criteria matter to the users of standards? Let
us examine them and then try to assess their importance for the
users of standards.
Criteria for Standards
When a document achieves consensus it has gained general agreement,
characterized by the absence of sustained opposition to substantial
issues by any important part of the concerned interests. General
agreement does not mean unanimity, only that those holding a minority
view are not able to convince the majority that their position
is right. Which part is this majority? Can it be all the manufacturers
of a product? Can it be all the users who are unhappy with what
the producers are willing to provide? The standards bodies do
their utmost to balance representation of interests on their technical
committees and ensure that the chair is impartial. Appeals procedures
exist to solve disputes when opposition to a substantial issue
is sustained and consensus cannot be reached.
As a committee cannot be aware of all the factors relevant to
a standard, the path to consensus includes seeking to take into
account the views of all parties concerned by making a draft
standard publicly available and inviting comment. Refining the
draft in the light of comments to achieve consensus can be a time-consuming
process. Standards users have grown increasingly critical of the
time this takes and so question the value of consensus. A recent
survey, initiated by DIN,  found that majority-decision-making
was well supported but that a change from consensus was not as
important as other ways to speed standards preparation. However,
it was also found that a considerable proportion of those in favor
of majority decisions wanted to retain veto rights for their own
It is implicit in the definition of consensus that a concept of
absolute value exists, i.e., that consensus is the same at every
level: international, regional, national, and sectoral. However,
both regional and national standards bodies modify international
standards for use at these lower levels. By level here I mean
extent of geographical area or, within one nation, an industrial
The problem with this criterion iswho does the recognizing? A
standardizing body has recognized activities in standardization
and a standards body is a standardizing body recognized at national,
regional, or international level. In some instances standards
bodies are formally recognized by national governments: some are
indeed government agencies. A few standards bodies, ASTM, the
British Standards Institution (BSI), and Deutsches Institut für
Normung (DIN), for example, have gained international recognitionbut
why? These bodies have been publishing standards for many years
and the users of their standards find them satisfactory in application,
though the members of their committees and the expertise of their
staff are unknown. All that remains is the impression that standards
bodies do things the right way, i.e., operate with committees
of balanced interests, expose their drafts to the public, and
finalize them by consensus. These principles are summed up in
the expression duty of care, which influences those who prepare
standards to act responsibly toward the standards users. Recognition
must be essentially by the users because standards are voluntary
documents so the users are free to choose. They have a strong
Common and Repeated Use
Standards are publicly available for all to use. They can form
the technical basis of legal and contractual agreements because
they represent what is mutually acceptable to interested parties
without bias. This common availability is in contrast to manufacturers
own specifications or the recommendations for good practice of
professional bodies for their members. A standard product is recognized
as fit for purpose and safe to use. Standardized products are
interchangeable so that parts fit together when bought from different
sources and at different times. Standard test methods are available
to verify that products conform to their specifications, thus
removing a source of dispute between suppliers and purchasers.
Provision for repeated use is of value to manufacturers who can
tool up for long production runs. It is equally of value to the
users who can rely on the ability to obtain the same products
over a period of time.
Optimum Degree of Order
Drafting a product specification involves first the choice of
those properties relevant to its intended use followed by the
choice of values for each property. Optimizing these two choices
is the very essence of standardizing products and a lengthy task.
For every product there is a balance to be found between too few
standard types and too many. Too few leads to the users demanding
non-standard products made specially for their needs, and too
many can leave the manufacturers with excessive product lines
and slow moving stock.
The term adaptation loss was coined by Sittig  to quantify
the loss to the user either of having to accept a (more expensive)
product of higher performance than really needed or of having
to accept a product of lower performance than required for the
task. In general, the user will have to opt for higher performance
and, if the product is to be part of a system, this will lead
to additional costs as the performance of other parts of the system
will have to be raised. Variety reduction is therefore not necessarily
a good thing, though often advanced as a benefit of standardization.
The New Deliverables
Dissatisfaction with the length of time taken to prepare standards
led to the publication by non-standards bodies of normative
documents to meet their own needs. These bodies were initially
formed by influential manufacturers with major shares of the global
market; their consortia standards gained wide recognition. Many
users of their products were happy to accept this situation, particularly
in the fast-growing information technology sector where rival
incompatible systems had become a major headache. Not all manufacturers
and users were convinced of the benefits of this non-transparent
solution, as it did not enable all parties to contribute to the
formulation of product specifications.
In response, some standards bodies, both national and international,
have themselves devised new types of normative document prepared
by faster routes that do not involve the due process of full consensus
required for traditional standards. These new documents are the
result of consultation within restricted fora and subject to lower
degrees of consensus. Different standards bodies have coined their
own names and procedures for preparing these documents, to the
confusion of users.
The new ISO deliverables, for example, are the following:
Technical specifications (TS), prepared within an ISO technical
committee and approved for publication by a vote in the committee.
There is a degree of transparency involved, leading to what may
be termed committee consensus.
Publicly available specifications (PAS), prepared by the experts
in a working group of an ISO technical committee and approved
for publication by voting in a meeting or by mail. This vote is
then confirmed by a vote in the technical committee. Transparency
is negligible and leads to working group consensus of a lower
Industry Technical Agreements (ITA), prepared by a workshop
outside the committee structure and approved for publication by
the workshop members. Transparency is again negligible and leads
to workshop consensus of a still lower degree.
All three documents are seen as potential standards after a limited
number of years. Even these innovations have already been found
wanting: at the final workshop of ISO/INFCO  (ISO Committee
on Information Systems and Services) the need was advanced for
consensus only by the parties affected in a particular sector.
The criteria of consensus and the reputation (i.e., recognition
by the users) of the standards bodies both appear to weigh with
the users of their standards. The extent to which this reputation
depends on consensus is not clear. In the U.K., the acceptability
for use in practice of national standards based on ISO/TSs compared
to those based on international standards may offer an indication.
However, such a comparison could mislead if the ISO/TSs were originally
drafts approved by the U.K. at the formal vote but failing to
gain international acceptance. The criteria of common and repeated
use and of optimum degree of order do not appear to have the same
importance. These are admittedly subjective impressions in an
area where hard data are lacking. Only a survey, as thorough as
that initiated by DIN, on the relative importance of the four
criteria, can provide an objective conclusion.
User experience with the new deliverables of lower degrees of
consensus than standards is still limited. ISO has published some
20 TSs that include specifications, tests, and other methods.
Whatever the future holds for consensus, I am convinced that the
integrity of the standardizers expressed by the phrase duty of
care will always remain the underlying, though formally undefined,
criterion that enables the users of standards to trust in them.
People matter more than processes even when they involve full
 ISO/IEC (International Organization for Standardization/International
Electrotechnical Commission) Guide 2, Standardization and related
activitiesGeneral vocabulary, Geneva, 1996.
 Economic Benefits of Standardization, Summary of Results,
DIN, Berlin, 2000.
 J. Sittig, Economically Optimal Standardization, in Proceedings
of the First International Symposium on Applications of Mathematical
Methods to Standardization, Wydawnictwa Normalizacyjne, Warsaw,
 A.R. Mears, Standards in Nine Dimensions, ISI Bulletin, Vol.
38, No. 3, pp 90-93.
 Standards in a Post-Industrial World. ISO/INFCO Workshop,
October 2000. Summary in ISO Bulletin, December 2000, Geneva,
Copyright 2001, ASTM