The U.S. government's general role in standards is, first, as a user of standards. Agencies use standards in the purchase of products (e.g., DoD) and through their incorporation into federal regulations (e.g., the Occupational Safety and Health Administration). The government also provides the technical foundation for many standardization activities and advocates for U.S. interests around the world.
The National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) plays many roles in standardization. NIST provides the technical basis for standards through fundamental physical standards measurement, test methods, reference data, and production of standard reference material. NIST participates in voluntary standards committees, presently holding 1,143 memberships on 816 standards committees of 79 organizations. NIST chairs 118 of these standards committees. NIST also runs the National Voluntary Laboratory Accreditation Program. In addition, about 170,000 standards-related inquiries are handled annually by NIST's National Center for Standards and Certification Information. The center serves as the U.S. GATT Inquiry Point. NIST has begun to explore mutual recognition of accreditation bodies through its National Voluntary Conformity Assessment Systems Evaluation program. Finally, NIST is working to improve communication and cooperation among government agencies, standards organizations, and industry.
The U.S. standards system faces several challenges. The current process may not always be adequate to deal with the changing international environment. For example, ANSI is often the U.S. representative in the international standards arena. In one panelist's view, ANSI's lack of formal government backing can place it at a disadvantage relative to other parties. The United States often acts in a reactive mode in some areas of standards, rather than setting the agenda for the rest of the world. There is some movement by the private sector, however, to recognize the importance of participation in the international standards arena. This is evidenced by the growing number of U.S.-held ISO committee chairs.
A government participant proposed developing a systems approach to the standards process to achieve national goals more effectively. This would require (1) focusing on a clearly defined national goal; (2) delineating responsibilities and relations among standards organizations, industry, and government; and (3) improving communication among all parties in the voluntary standards process.
A private-sector panelist's perspective on the U.S. government's role in standards and conformity assessment emphasized the need for a more definitive relationship between the government and the private voluntary standards system. The panelist stressed that government must recognize and use the private voluntary standards system. In addition, U.S. industry should support ANSI as a credible mechanism for promoting integration of the voluntary standards system.