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NIST to Support Federal Agencies as They Implement Best Practices for Standards Activities

Last week, the White House issued a memorandum recognizing the role of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in helping agencies implement best practices for standards development activities to address national priorities. The memo clarifies how federal agencies should work with the private sector in standards development, and it stresses the importance of public-private partnerships to the U.S. standards system and promoting innovation.

"NIST has more than 100 years of experience collaborating with industry and standards development organizations, and we're looking forward to working with the White House and our colleagues in other agencies to share best practices as we implement the principles outlined in this memo," said Under Secretary of Commerce for Standards and Technology and NIST Director Patrick Gallagher. "Recently, we've applied those lessons learned to helping coordinate standards efforts for such economically important areas as the Smart Grid, Health IT and the National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace."

The memo specifically refers to NIST's expertise in—and authority to coordinate—conformity assessment activities of federal, state and local governments, and the private sector. Conformity assessment is a mechanism for assuring that a product, service or management system meets the specified requirements of a particular standard. Conformity assessment is a key component of the U.S. standards system and can cover product or service testing, manufacturing process inspection or management system implementation.*

From the screw thread dimensions for bolts to the technical specifications that ensure computer software compatibility, standards play a largely unseen but critical role in our daily life, affecting everything from banking to communications to transportation to health care. The great majority of global merchandise trade is affected by standards and by regulations that embody standards.

Standards in the United States are predominantly voluntary and consensus-based, and developed in a process led by the private sector that brings together industry, government agencies, consumers and other interested stakeholders, all participating equally as subject matter experts to develop timely and effective standards solutions. When matters of national importance require standards, the federal government can serve an essential convening role to "accelerate standards development and implementation to help spur technological advances and broaden technology adoption," according to the Jan. 17 memo.

The memo clarifies principles guiding federal government engagement in standards activities and formalizes several of the policy recommendations that were proposed in an October 2011 report of the Subcommittee on Standards of the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC). The subcommittee, which is chaired by Gallagher, sought input from stakeholders about the effectiveness of the federal government engagement in standards.

The memo, which extends guidance provided by the Office of Management and Budget in 1998, was jointly released by three offices in the Executive Office of the President—the Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, and the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs within the Office of Management and Budget.

The White House standards memo is available online. The report of the NSTC Subcommittee on Standards, "Federal Engagement in Standards Activities to Address National Priorities" is available online. Information on the subcommittee can be found at:

*For a discussion of conformity assessment, see this explanation by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) online. (link removed; no longer active)

Released January 24, 2012, Updated January 24, 2023