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Federal Agencies Double Their Use of Private-Sector Standards

A newly released, congressionally mandated report from the Department of Commerce's National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) concludes that federal agencies are greatly increasing their use of private-sector standards in regulations and procurement actions, progress intended to raise government efficiency and to reduce compliance burdens.

Altogether, 28 agencies and cabinet-level departments used 5,453 so-called voluntary consensus standards in new or revised regulations and specifications issued during the 2000 fiscal year, the latest reporting period. The FY 2000 total is double the number reported during the previous fiscal year.

As important, the agencies introduced only 16 government-unique standards and eliminated 537 existing ones, according to the Fourth Annual Report on Federal Agency Use of Voluntary Consensus Standards.

"Many agencies made significant progress in decreasing their use of unique in-house standards while increasing their reliance on voluntary consensus standards developed in the private sector, with federal participation," said NIST's Belinda Collins, who chairs the Interagency Committee on Standards Policy.

Under the National Technology Transfer and Advancement Act (NTTAA), signed into law in 1996, federal agencies are directed to adopt private-sector standards whenever possible, especially those developed by established bodies using open, formal procedures that rely on consensus among affected parties.

Exceptions are permitted when available voluntary consensus standards do not satisfy the particular mission-based requirements of an agency. However, agencies must report each time they use an agency-unique standard.

Since 1997, the year covered in the first NIST-prepared report required by the NTTAA, agency-reported use of voluntary consensus standards has increased ten-fold. Substitution of voluntary consensus standards for government-unique ones has nearly tripled. In 2000, introductions of government-unique standards dropped 82 percent from the previous year, when agencies reported using 88 standards of their own making.

Although partially driven by each agency's annual regulatory agenda, the report says, "this drop also indicates greater reliance on voluntary consensus standards and compliance with the spirit of the NTTAA."

NIST, which coordinates the government's standards-related activities, also tracks federal participation in private-sector standards development organizations, both domestic and international. The law encourages such participation so that agency needs can be addressed along with those of the private sector during the development of new voluntary consensus standards.

The number of federal employees participating in private-sector standards bodies, according to the new report, has been declining steadily, from 3,276 in 1997 to 2,733 in 2000. However, the annual rate of decrease has slowed to 4 percent, as compared to 12 percent in 1999.

The four-year decline "is most likely due to staff attrition, budget cuts and streamlining of agency standards programs," the report says. It predicts the decline will "level off even more in the next year as standards programs reach their steady state."

Changes initiated by the NTTAA are still under way, as agencies refine and improve their implementation efforts. Also, the report notes that agencies have occasional difficulties when trying to categorize standards according to reporting requirements.

Despite these process kinks, many agencies have made significant strides in carrying out their responsibilities under the NTTAA, Collins says. As evidence, she points to the individual agency summaries in the 142-page report. Examples of agency progress include:

  • The Environmental Protection Agency used voluntary consensus standards in 77 percent of its 585 final rule makings during FY 2000, an increase of 42 percent over 1999.
  • The Department of Defense completed its review (begun in 1994) of all 40,000 military specifications (known as MilSpecs) for potential replacement by voluntary consensus standards. For new requirements, it instituted a stringent system to determine whether a voluntary consensus standard would be more appropriate.
  • NASA and the Department of Defense launched their Single Process Initiative, intended to identify and apply common standards for contractor-supplied equipment used by both agencies.
  • NIST published the federal government's first-ever conformity assessment guidelines to help agencies improve their management and coordination of testing, inspection, certification and other activities to determine whether products or services meet regulatory or procurement requirements.

The Fourth Annual Report on Federal Agency Use of Voluntary Consensus Standards (NISTIR 6846) and the three previous annual reports are available in Adobe Acrobat format at Click on "NTTAA Annual Reports on Implementation." To receive a hard copy of the report, contact Kevin McIntyre, (301) 975-4907.

As a non-regulatory agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce's Technology Administration, NIST develops and promotes measurements, standards and technology to enhance productivity, facilitate trade and improve the quality of life.

Released March 4, 2002, Updated February 6, 2023