Pointing to prospective benefits for U.S. industry and consumers, the director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology told a congressional subcommittee today that a new "national strategy" should lead to more effective advocacy of U.S. technology interests in the development of international standards, which, increasingly, define the terms of trade.
"The nation has long needed a compelling strategy to realize the benefits of standardization and to compete effectively in global markets," said NIST Director Raymond G. Kammer, whose agency is part of the Commerce Department's Technology Administration. He noted that the European Community and Canada already have developed strategic approaches to influencing the development of global standards important to economic and other interests.
Achieving a shared focus has been a challenge for the highly decentralized U.S. standards system. It consists of some 400 traditional standards organizations and about 150 consortia that also develop standards, primarily for information and communication technologies. The American National Standards Institute-a federation of about 1,000 organizations, including developers and industrial users of standards, consumer representatives and government agencies-helps to administer and coordinate the U.S. voluntary standards system. ANSI is the U.S. representative to the International Organization for Standardization, or ISO, and the International Electrotechnical Commission, standards organizations that limit participation to national bodies.
Kammer told the House of Representatives Technology Subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Constance A. Morella (R-Md.), that standards are growing in importance as national economies become more interdependent. Standards specify characteristics or performance levels of products, processes, services or systems. Examples range from specifications for film speed to process standards for boilers to the relatively well-known ISO 9000 standards for quality management systems.
Though voluntary, standards frequently are incorporated into national regulations. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has estimated that about 80 percent of global merchandise trade is affected by standards or by regulations that embody standards.
Providing a common technical language, standards facilitate commercial transactions and ensure agreed-upon levels of quality. Yet, standards also can pose "technical barriers" to trade. "Embodied in national regulations, standards can be crafted to impede export access, sometimes necessitating excessive testing and even redesigns of products," Kammer said in his written testimony.
The U.S. voluntary standards system is largely aligned with industrial sectors. Systems in other countries tend to be more hierarchical and more tightly linked to government. Observers suggest that the U.S. system is more open and responsive to industrial and marketplace needs. Decentralization, however, can complicate U.S. participation in multinational and global standards activities.
"Developing strategic policy positions and bridging sometimes competing positions can be difficult," Kammer said.
In 1998, Kammer challenged standards developers and users to develop a national strategy. He pointed out that the European Community and other economic competitors use standardization activities to advance their national technology interests, sometimes at the expense of U.S. business. In contrast, efforts to champion U.S. technology interests at the global level were uneven, he said.
ANSI took up the challenge and found private-sector support for efforts to develop a national strategic approach to standards. Over the next two years, ANSI gathered input from industry, standards developers, government agencies and consumer representatives. The resulting National Standards Strategy was approved by ANSI's Board of Directors on Aug. 31, 2000.
While responding to trends in trade, technology and industry, the strategy "builds on the strengths of the U.S.-based sectoral approach to standards development," Kammer said. "It lays out the principles necessary for the development of national or international standards to meet societal and market needs."
The new strategy establishes a framework to guide standards development in the United States and to champion U.S. technology interests in the international standards arena. Key to the framework is reliance on a flexible approach, which allows different individual needs to be met within an overall strategy. It also stresses the importance of key principles in the development process, such as consensus, openness and transparency. In addition, the strategy includes 11 tactical initiatives, from increasing government use of voluntary standards to working proactively with U.S. trading partners to further mutual technical and policy interests.
"The strategy will help the decentralized U.S. standards community to face more squarely the issue of developing and adopting international standards," Kammer said.
The National Standards Strategy can be found on the ANSI web site at www.ansi.org/.
As a non-regulatory agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce's Technology Administration, NIST strengthens the U.S. economy and improves the quality of life by working with industry to develop and apply technology, measurements and standards through four partnerships: the Measurement and Standards Laboratories, the Advanced Technology Program, the Manufacturing Extension Partnership and the Baldrige National Quality Program.