Game Changer

OMB's Circular A-119

One event transformed the U.S. standards system into one unlike any other in the world. It occurred on Oct. 26, 1982, when the Office of Management and Budget issued Circular A-119. It directed federal agencies to rely on voluntary consensus standards in its regulations and procurement activities and to participate in standards bodies.

For the first time in the United States, government-wide reliance on voluntary standards was policy. It was a course of action that reconstituted the U.S. standardization system and altered U.S. government regulatory and procurement protocols. It was a game changer.

Instead of farming out their standards projects or developing unique standards at great cost, federal agencies now had an established structure within which to work and a system that was cost-effective and efficient. Over time, government spending on the development of standards decreased dramatically and was replaced by modest membership dues in organizations like ASTM International. Time expended on standards development and travel expenses were reduced. The difference was remarkable.

A-119, Federal Participation in the Development and Use of Voluntary Consensus Standards and in Conformity Assessment Activities, also produced a philosophical shift, as the idea of voluntary consensus standards used for regulatory purposes sifted into the consciousness of federal agencies. As these standards introduced a layer of impartiality and inclusivity into the regulatory framework, agencies discovered an increase in the likelihood of compliance and a decrease in the use of government resources used for enforcement. On the private sector side, the increase in government members brought a fuller, broader range of interests to the processes of organizations like ASTM. It really was a win-win situation.

Perhaps the most transformative effect of the circular, however, was that it put the regulator and the regulated in the same room. Problem definition and problem-solving now were the province of all interested and affected parties, and although standards were still created in an atmosphere of "cooperative antagonism," understanding, respect and even amity became inherent qualities of the new partnership.

In March 1996, 14 years after the issuance of the OMB circular, the National Technology Transfer and Advancement Act was signed into law. It codified the pre-existing policies in the circular and added reporting requirements for agencies. The partnership of the private and public sectors in the development of voluntary consensus standards was now not only policy; it was the law of the land.

The latest (16th) Annual Report on Federal Agency Use of Voluntary Consensus Standards and Conformity Assessment lists 3,085 personnel participating in a total of 552 standards developing organizations during fiscal year 2012. In May 2013, there was active government participation in 93 percent of ASTM committees with over 1,400 units of participation. According to the Standards Incorporated by Reference database, ASTM International is the number one standards developing organization listed, leading by a wide margin with 2,791 references.

Over the years, OMB Circular A-119 has been refined and revised to reflect developments in regulation, standards and conformity assessment – first in 1993, then in 1998, when revisions were made for consistency with the NTTAA. The latest revision was issued in January of this year.

The 2016 revisions to the circular are about changes in the times. There are those that reflect the United States' obligations under the Technical Barriers to Trade Agreement and other trade agreements. Others address present-day matters such as copyright owners' interest in protecting intellectual property, and access to read-only online standards. Still others have strengthened and elevated the role of agency standards executives and clarified guidance to agencies in complying with the general directive of using standards developed by the private sector and participating in the development of those standards. A-119 is up-to-date.

In any government policy-making process involving all interested parties, unanimous agreement is extremely unlikely, as it was in this case. Public comments included conflicting viewpoints on the development, use and ownership of standards resulting from this public-private partnership. Ultimately, the federal government decided what worked best for it, a policy and a partnership that has worked well for over 30 years.

It should be noted that under certain conditions, the policy allows for flexibility in the selection of private sector non-consensus standards, but the overwhelming preference is still for consensus standards.

It should also be noted that the United States is obligated under the TBT Agreement to use relevant international standards, except where such standards would be an ineffective or inappropriate means to fulfill the legitimate objective pursued. In light of this obligation and in response to comments received during the revision process, OMB makes a particularly interesting statement: "…the Federal government does not make a distinction between standards bodies based on where they are domiciled, but rather with respect to the attributes that characterize their processes for standards development. Thus, we have deleted the phrase ‘both domestic and international.'"

It goes without saying that ASTM has, from the beginning, supported the aims and goals of Circular A-119, but this statement happens to be a perfect reflection of our policy and of the remarkable partnership that exists between this organization and the U.S. government.

James A. Thomas

President, ASTM International

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