The following is the introduction to the Feature Article in the most recent issue of Standards Today, the free "eJournal of News, Ideas and Analysis" that I have been writing for the last seven years. You can read the entire article here, and sign up for a free subscription here.
For more than 100 years, the United States has been the exemplar of the "bottom up" model of standards development. Under this methodology, society relies on the private sector to identify standards-related needs and opportunities in most sectors, and then develops responsive specifications. Government, for its part, retains ultimate control over domains such as health, safety, and environmental protection, but preferentially uses private sector standards in procurement, and also references private sector standards into law when appropriate (e.g., as building codes).
Until recently, government agencies in the United States commonly developed their own standards for procurement purposes. This era of separate but equal standards creation officially came to an end with the passage of the National Technology Transfer and Advancement Act of 1995. With this legislation, Congress directed government agencies to use "voluntary consensus standards" (VCSs) and other private sector specifications wherever practical rather than "government unique standards," and to participate in the development of these standards as well. In 1998, Office of Management and Budget Circular A-119 was amended to provide additional guidance to the Federal agencies on complying with the NTTAA.
Unlike some legislation, the impact of the NTTAA can be directly measured, at least at the level of raw statistics. This, because the NTTAA also directed the Federal agencies to report their compliance to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), which aggregates the data into annual compliance reports to Congress as mandated by Section 9 of OMB A-119. These reports detail the decommissioning of thousands of government unique standards, and the adoption of even more specifications developed and maintained by private sector standards development organizations (SDOs) accredited by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), the traditional global standards organizations (ISO, IEC and ITU), trade and industry associations, and by the hundreds of global industry consortia that have sprung up over the last thirty years in the information and communications technology (ICT) sectors.
Indeed, OMB A-119 requires that an agency must report to Congress each time it determines it to be necessary to create a new government unique standard despite the fact that a VCS is available. For the first time in 2008, no government agency reported such a determination, although 634 new VCSs had been adopted into use — a startling 80% increase from 2007. Indeed, NIST reported that only 45 "government unique standards in lieu of VCSs" (as compared to government unique standards lacking private sector alternatives) remained in use among the 26 agencies.
OMB A-119 also requires the Federal agencies to report on the participation of agency personnel in private sector standards organizations. For 2008, NIST reported that federal agency personnel participated in a record number (534) of SDOs and other standard setting organizations (collectively, "SSOs) — a 7.4% increase from the prior year, although the total number of personnel participating dropped from an all time high in 2007 of 3,374 to 2,935.
In this article, I will: review the ways in which standards-related infrastructure and policy needs have evolved in the United States since the passage of the NTTAA; the recent realization by government that the existing standards development infrastructure is in some ways lacking to meet those needs; and the opportunity that a recent request for comments by NIST provides to educate agency leaders on how the Federal agencies can more productively participate in, support and catalyze the standards development process in furtherance of the national interest. Finally, I will provide my own recommendations in response to the RFI.
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