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Remarks by Robert Hebner, Acting Deputy Director, National Institute of Standards and Technology, to the Federal Technical Standards Workshop
August 4, 1998
Washington, D.C.


  • Welcome to the 1998 Federal Technical Standards Workshop--the first one to include this variety of federal agencies. I want to congratulate the Department of Energy, in particular, for leading this effort which we are pleased to cosponsor.

  • We are cosponsoring this event as part of our responsibilities under the National Technology Transfer and Advancement Act. The Act and the OMB Circular A-119 ask NIST to coordinate and assist agencies in carrying out their own responsibilities under that Act.

  • The theme for this workshop, Standards Management -- A World of Change and Opportunities, is a fitting one since agencies are now in the process of implementing the revised OMB Circular A-119. As is the case with most things in Washington, this revision brings with it challenges of change and opportunities for better utilization of resources.

  • Implementing the revised Circular is an important and demanding job; but remember, Thomas Edison once said "Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work." And that is what you have before you today. Work that truly is an opportunity to change standards management for the better.

  • Among the duties that NIST has under OMB Circular A-119, is one to collate and create an annual report of agency activities in standards. NIST has transmitted to OMB the 1997 report on standards related activities.

  • I am pleased to relate to you that there was an increase in the number of voluntary standards used by agencies to 540, with an additional 180 Federal standards withdrawn. That is clearly a positive development, and one that reflects the goals of the OMB circular.

  • But not all the news is good. I am distressed to note a significant decrease in the number of Federal participants in voluntary standards committees - a decrease of almost 1500 people, down to just under 3300.

  • The largest decrease was reported by the Defense Department -- with 1600 fewer employees participating in voluntary standards committees and leaving 600-plus DOD employees still involved with those committees. But other departments and agencies also reported significant declines, with the Transportation and Commerce Departments each reporting a drop of more than 100 employees participating.

  • At the same time, modest increases were reported by the Departments of Energy, Interior, and Veterans Affairs, General Services Administration and NASA.

  • So what's happening here?

  • It's tempting to assume that our numbers are bad. This is not the first time these data have been compiled, so you would think that they are pretty reliable. But this is the first report prepared since the OMB circular was revised, and the revision does make it clear how important this topic is -- so perhaps agencies took the assignment more seriously.

  • It's also quite possible that we are seeing the effects of downsizing, both in terms of the total federal employment and in budgets which are squeezing the funds available to pay for employee participation in standards committees meetings. In some cases, we know that agencies are not replacing retiring employees, and those retirees may have unique expertise which made their participation on standards committees invaluable.

  • And some people are speculating that the drop-off reflects concerns about the appropriateness, from a legal standpoint, of federal employees taking part in these forums. That just doesn't make sense to me because the OMB circular made it clearer than ever that federal agencies should "rely on voluntary standards whenever feasible and consistent with the law and regulations pursuant to the law." Furthermore, the circular encourages federal employees to participate when voluntary standards activities "...are in the public interest, and when it is compatible with the agency's missions, authorities, priorities, and budget resources."

  • If the numbers of participating employees represent a declining level of effort, we have real cause for concern. We are at a critical juncture in the global structure and systems for developing standards and ensuring their appropriate use in trade. I'll have more to say about that shortly. We can ill afford to lose the technical capabilities that so many federal standards experts possess just when the debates over international standards are heating up.

  • Moreover, the federal government has strong interests as a major consumer and user of voluntary standards, and it would be detrimental to the public's interest for the government to lose its voice in these committees.

  • So what do we do about the apparent decline? NIST will, of course, continue to work with you to increase the use of voluntary standards to meet agency goals and to reverse the decline in Federal participation. But what specifically can you do now?

  • You'll notice that I cited the Commerce Department as one of the agencies reporting a decline in employee participation. That hasn't gone unnoticed at NIST, which includes the bulk of the Department's standards-participating employees. We have begun the process of asking ourselves some hard questions. When employees report that they are no longer involved in standards committees, we are following up and asking for an explanation. Was the work completed? Was it no longer relevant to the employee's current assignments? Was it due to lack of funding to directly participate in the standards committees? Was management less supportive of their involvement?

  • But even more broadly, we have started to develop a strategic standards management plan for NIST. We want to have a very clear policy and refined goals for our investment in voluntary standards committees. We want our technical experts to leverage our resources in the best possible way, and we want to identify those areas of technical activity where we should either increase or decrease or involvement in standards matters. And we want to know why.

  • I urge each of you to take back to your organizations the idea of developing a strategic standards management plan. It doesn't have to be massive -- in fact, it should not be ponderous -- but it should help you to put a proper focus on your standards-related activities. It also should help to raise awareness within your agencies about why federal employees participate in standards committees, and I suspect it may well raise the positive profile of your efforts.

  • I know that the heads of most federal departments and agencies don't have voluntary standards matters anywhere near the top of their very full agendas. And we all know that some of our colleagues too often roll their eyes or express sighs of boredom when we start talking about standards committees and standards in general. Somehow, we have got to find a way to break through that standards barrier and explain in clear, simple English just how important these activities are. If we can't do that, we will simply not gain the support that is needed to maintain or expand our involvement in the voluntary standards process. The end result would be a less effective, less well represented standards system in the United States.

  • I assure you that NIST will work with you to help elevate standards policy planning, something we are doing through the Interagency Committee on Standards Policy, or ICSP, which is chaired by Dr. Belinda Collins, Director of NIST's Office of Standards Services. The goal of this group is to help federal agencies to develop and implement consistent federal policies for standards and conformity assessment activities. Dr. Collins will tell you more about the ICSP activities later on in the workshop.

  • I can tell you that at NIST, we have raised the visibility and importance of voluntary standards activities. We have the mission of promoting economic growth by working with industry to develop and apply technology, measurements and standards -- and we take that assignment seriously. Ray Kammer, the NIST Director, and I have spent extraordinary amounts of time in the past year working to convey the importance of standards matters to a variety of audiences, some of which had standards issues on the backburner or nowhere in sight. We are going to keep up the drumbeat.

  • That's because standardization activities in the United States are broad, complex and decentralized. Let me talk about that a bit, and in a context much broader than most federal agencies typically take into account.

  • The U.S. standardization community obviously includes: government and nongovernment standards developing organizations; affected interests that participate in the development and approval of standards; and organizations which disseminate standards and information about standards.

  • At the national level, the United States currently maintains about 93,000 standards in active status -- 49,000 in the private sector. Major nongovernmental standards developers include: Aerospace Industries Association, Society of Automotive Engineers International, U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention, and American Society for Testing and Materials to name just a few of the largest.

  • The National Research Council report, "Standards, Conformity Assessment and Trade for the 21st Century," pointed out that the decentralization of the U.S. standards system is not serving industry needs well for the global market.

  • It is clear to many of us that the United States needs an effective national standards strategy if we are to compete effectively in the global market. And we don't have one yet.

  • International standards for products, processes and services are increasingly important to the U.S. economy due to the quickening pace of technological innovation and the globalization of trade.

  • The U.S. standards community needs to work together more effectively to resolve our differences with one another to achieve a unified U.S. approach in the international standards setting arena. Our current domestic standards system is not succeeding well enough at the international level even though we have made good progress in the last five years.

  • We know that federal agency participation and expertise is an important part of the whole and is sorely needed in the creation of our national standards strategy.

  • This workshop today will help you to learn more about standards management at the facility or agency level.

  • Yet there is another level at which we need to think about this topic -- at the national level.

  • I challenge each of you to listen and learn over the next few days and to think of ways that can assist the entire United States in its own standards management strategy -- because you will soon be able to contribute to the current thinking at the national level on this topic.

  • NIST is cosponsoring, with the American National Standards Institute, a Standards Summit on World Standards Day, September 23rd, "Toward a National Standards Strategy to Meet Global Needs," in the Ronald Reagan International Trade Center.

  • The meeting is the beginning of an important dialogue on issues in developing, supporting, and using national and international standards that significantly affect U.S. manufacturers and exporters. Representatives from standards developing organizations, industry, government, consumers and other stakeholder groups are invited to attend and participate in the discussions.

  • We are currently accepting white papers on the subject. The primary objective of the summit is to open a discussion and to solicit ideas for a more effective national strategy that will meet the needs of both the private sector and the government.

  • The Summit will have three Roundtable discussions: identifying U.S. needs for domestic, regional, and international standardization; getting the best of U.S. technology into standards; and funding the process. There are brochures for this event outside on the tables. You can also get more information, and register on-line, from NIST's web page.

  • I applaud your working together to tackle some of the issues you have addressed and I am impressed by your willingness to learn from each other. You are hearing from OMB, NIST and other agencies during this conference, and I am certain that you will come away from this workshop with a better understanding of the challenge we all face. I know this information will work to your advantage. A world of change is before us and we must seize opportunities in the standards management arena.

  • Again, I challenge you to apply what you learn here today and tomorrow not only at the facility or agency level but also at the national level. Help us shape a national standards strategy to meet our global needs well into the 21st century. As Sun Tzu once said, "Opportunities multiply as they are seized." Thank you.