01 October 2002
Who's watching the watchdogs?
Strategic processes pull on the reins.
Images of someone with a blue hat, badge, and nightstick patrolling conference rooms during standards meetings might come to mind when you think of policing standards. Yet the responsibility of ensuring committees write effective standards lies not in one organization but in the process itself.
By Ellen Fussell
While tedious meetings, balloting protocol, and political agendas can bog down the publication of a standard, they also serve an important function: to make sure the standards serve their purpose in the industry. In fact, the processes are less about policing and more about finding strategies to build momentum while still ensuring balance and validity.
Keeping the procedures consistent is the responsibility of groups and organizations such as the American Society of Chemical Engineers (ASME), ISA-The Instrumentation, Systems, and Automation Society, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), and the European Committee for Electrotechnical Standardization (CENELEC)-the watchdogs ensuring due process. The other challenge is to make sure the standard actually hits the street in time to benefit the industry-before the technology is defunct-and meets the needs of those using it.
The principle of balance ensures a committee isn't dominated by one type of knowledge, said Marty Zielinski, director of HART/fieldbus technology at Emerson Process Management in Eden Prairie, Minn., and ISA's vice president of Standards and Practices. In a sense, it provides a dual role: to avoid dominance of a particular position or opinion and to provide feedback of the requirements.
"You want to make certain a supplier doesn't write a standard that favors his product to the disadvantage of other suppliers," he said. "At the same time, you'd like the input of the end user. Even if there were no malicious intent to favor one position, there's still the need to receive clear end-user requirements so we can meet their needs."
Because standards usually originate in a public forum, the process is slow, Zielinski said. When standards-developing organizations (SDOs) such as ASME, ISA, and CENELEC develop the standards, rules that ensure due process and balance among committees can preclude getting a standard on the street sooner rather than later. But it does have its advantages, Zielinski said.
While private consortia can put a standard on the street fairly quickly, the "disadvantage of consortia is that balance can't exist, and bias can," Zielinski said. "Competing consortia can also exist, so you diminish the real value of a standard."
One way to speed up the process would be to develop a document for trial use, Zielinski said. "It has a limited life and requires [instead of the typical two-thirds acceptance majority] only a simple majority: 51% as opposed to 67%. So it's easier to get a document approved. It can have mistakes because it's on trial use," he said.
Other procedures that help speed standards development are the canvas method, default ballot, electronic balloting, and teleconferencing.
Balloting by canvas means an SDO sends a document to industry experts (whether one party or an outside organization writes it), and the document essentially undergoes a public review as the first stage, rather than going through laborious committee stages. If there are no negative comments (which would have to be resolved), it's approved by Public Review, effectively skipping the subcommittee and committee approval stages.
"This method is helpful where technology is fairly developed, and you no longer have a widespread committee," said Lois Ferson, ISA's manager of standard services in Research Triangle Park, N.C.
The default ballot saves time because it allows balloting by exception, allowing a standard to pass merely if there are no negative ballots. Ferson said ISA is now using this method to save time with its Standard and Practices (S&P) board balloting. Instead of requiring everyone to send in a positive ballot, ISA distributes the standard to the S&P board (only after it's been approved at committee level and there are no negative ballots). Board members have 10 days (as opposed to 30 in the past) to make objections. If they don't, the standard passes. In the past, the process required all S&P board members to send in a vote.
The tools are out there (e-mail, Internet, FTP sites, list serves, and Web sites) to speed up the process. But what's most important is to have a group of people willing to work intensively, said Bob Webb, senior project manager at Power Engineers Inc. in Novato, Calif., and a member of the ISA S&P board. "Even if you have the best facilities in the world to work electronically, if you have a group of people who don't know where they're going or what they want to do, it doesn't help."
But it also works the other way, he said. "If you have a group with commercial interests, dedicated to delaying or precluding a consensus-based standard, all the tools in the world don't make a difference. With or without modern technology, there are still problems in achieving consensus."
WHO OWNS THE STANDARD?
The policy on intellectual property rights has plagued SDOs and standards committees for years.
"The question is, when does something done for a committee or as part of a committee become the intellectual property of [the developing organization] as opposed to the property of the contributor?" Webb said. "How do you do that in a way that encourages people to participate instead of discouraging them?"
Webb said he believes when those writing the standard take advantage of "the support and facilities of an organization, whether it's ASME or IEEE or ISA, at some point that's a society work product and no longer an individual one, and the society needs to have the copyright for it," he said.
But at the same time, unless people working in the field can easily use the information in the standards, then it's useless, Webb said. "It was a waste of everyone's time, and you've failed in the primary objective, which was to capture knowledge and make it available to others."
WHO'S WATCHING THE WATCHDOGS?
While SDOs are the watchdogs of the standards writing procedures, organizations such as the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) are crucial to maintain consistency in the overall process. While the SDO is the first checkpoint (or the organization with the primary responsibility), ANSI is the last, at least with American standards. The European equivalent of ANSI is BSI in England and AFNOR in France.
ANSI also hires auditors to ensure that standards developers are following the rules. As InTech reported in February 2001, auditors such as Beth Somerville visit SDOs intermittently to ensure fairness and consensus are documented in the development procedures.
The main goal of the auditor isn't so much to police or find the developing organization at fault but really to educate and share ideas-to streamline and speed processes, Somerville said.
One such change in ANSI's procedural guidelines is to allow the electronic public review (shortened to 45 days from the previous 90 days). "This really speeds up the process for us," Ferson said.
AN OPEN MEETING?
In theory, standards meetings are open to the public-or at least to all committee members and "others having a direct and material interest," according to ANSI's Procedures for Development, Section A.7.1. The procedures also say "an agenda shall be available and shall be distributed in advance of the meeting to members and to others expressing interest." But how often are meetings open to the public, or even to the media?
Elaine J. Baskin, Ph.D., spoke up about inviting media to standards meetings in her January/February 2002 Standards Engineering article, "Reporting on Standards Committee Meetings: A Step Toward Open Standards." She provided a laundry list of benefits for the media reporting on standards meetings. It almost ensures the openness of standards meetings, she said. "When the members of the news media are invited to sit in on standards meetings, the process and products of those meetings are much more open, whether or not the press actually attends," she said.
While ISA's standards committees require balance on a committee and interest and knowledge in the subject, Webb said anyone interested can participate. "Their knowledge and questions will improve the end result, and that's how we create understandable consensus standards," he said.
ISA's SP67 nuclear standards committees are a good example of conducting open meetings, Webb said. "We've had people who represent a full range of interests, including people who are part of the antinuclear movement, as members on part of our standards committees," he said. "Plus, information on the meetings is on the Internet," he said. "And you can join e-mail lists."
Open meetings also make information more available to unknown stakeholders, Baskin said.
"End-user stakeholders may not even be aware that they are stakeholders in the standards process until long after the final standard has been created. . . . When the trade publications and the general interest media report on the standards process prior to the approval of a standard, the end-user stakeholder has the opportunity to become informed about the progress of the work. He or she can thus provide input to that standards process, if desired."
Open meetings make calls for intellectual property rights announcements more public and less easily ignored and "decrease the likelihood of backroom politics determining crucial facets of the standard under development," Baskin said. "Current policy in most standards organizations requests attendees of a meeting to announce their own [intellectual property rights] that may affect or be used by the standard in progress." IT