Behind the scenes the making of an ISO international Standard

Issue 31 – September 2011

International Organization for Standardization (ISO) Standards are everywhere. They have been applied to the brakes on our cars, the pipes of our houses, the floors and windows, our computers and printers, the food we consume, and much more. But few take notice of the thousands of Standards that enable us to carry out day-to-day activities such as emailing a digital photo to a loved one or riding our motorcycles and mopeds. It is only when Standards are absent that we realise their importance.

But that is because we do not have to. The ISO system ensures that Standards are developed when needed, with all stakeholders on board, through a fine-tuned process that successfully builds global consensus on best practice. ISO's more than 18 600 Standards are testament to this achievement.

So what's the secret? Who decides to develop a Standard? And what goes on before we get to the end product?

In the beginning…

The development of a Standard starts with a need. An industry sector or stakeholder group must first express a clearly established market need and communicate it to their national ISO member body. For instance, an industry might realise that being able to purchase parts with Standard sizes from around the world would lower costs and increase efficiency. Standards might be required by innovators to facilitate the adoption and market entry of new technologies. And regulators might want to rely on them to promote implementation of best practice while reducing technical barriers to trade.

International organisations working in liaison with ISO may also propose ideas for new Standards. ISO policy committees – on conformity assessment (CASCO), consumers (COPOLCO), and developing countries (DEVCO) – can also recommend future work areas.

To be accepted for development, a proposed work item must be supported by the majority of the participating members of the relevant ISO technical committee. The committee will, among other criteria, verify the global relevance of the proposed item, to confirm that the Standard responds to an international need and will be suitable for implementation on as broad a basis as possible.

Who develops Standards?

ISO Standards are developed by technical committees (including subcommittees or project committees) comprising experts from the industrial, technical and business sectors, which have asked for the Standards and which subsequently, put them to use. These experts may be joined by representatives of government agencies, testing laboratories, consumer associations, non-governmental organisations, and academic circles.

All interested ISO member bodies can opt to participate (P-member) in the work of a technical committee, or attend as an observer (O-member). National delegations are selected and endorsed by local mirror groups of diverse representation. These delegates represent not just the views of their organisation, but those of all stakeholders in their country.

International and regional organisations from both business and the public sectors may apply for liaison status to participate in this work, comment on drafts, and propose new Standards, but they have no voting rights.

The administrative support to the committee is provided by the Secretariat, which is held by an ISO member body. And a Chair is selected to lead the work.

Solid consensus

Every working day of the year, an average of 13 ISO technical meetings take place around the world. The national delegations of experts and organisations in liaison meet to discuss, debate, and argue until they reach consensus on a draft text. In between meetings, the experts continue the Standards' development work by correspondence. Increasingly, their work is carried out by electronic means, which speeds up the development of Standards and cuts travel costs.

In some cases, when substantial technical development and international debate on the subject has already occurred prior to a proposal being taken up by ISO, a document may be submitted for 'fast-track' processing. In both cases, the resulting document is circulated as a Draft International Standard (DIS) to all ISO's member bodies for voting and comment.

If the voting is in favour, the document, with eventual modifications, is circulated to the ISO members as a Final Draft International Standard (FDIS). If that vote in turn passes, the document is then published as an international Standard.

Because ISO Standards are voluntary agreements, they need to be based on a solid consensus (which need not imply unanimity) of international expert opinion. Although it is necessary for the technical work to progress speedily, sufficient time is required before the approval stage to discuss, negotiate, and resolve significant technical disagreements.

For a document to be accepted as an ISO international Standard, it must be approved by at least two-thirds of the ISO national members that participated in its development, and not be disapproved by more than a quarter of all ISO members who vote on it.

Beyond publication

As technology develops and times change, international Standards may become outdated. All ISO Standards are therefore reviewed at the least 3 years after publication (and every 5 years after the first review) by all the ISO member bodies to decide whether the document is still valid and should be confirmed or, alternatively, be revised or withdrawn.

Even though ISO Standards are voluntary, they are widely applied because they respond to existing market needs. By ensuring the involvement of all stakeholders, solid consensus-building, and continual review, ISO ensures that these documents are both practical and acceptable to all.

Summarised from an article in ISO Focus+ July/August 2011 by Maria Lazarte, Assistant Editor.

Note: Standards New Zealand is New Zealand's leading developer of Standards and Standards-based solutions. The majority of Standards are developed in partnership with Standards Australia. As New Zealand's representative for the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), Standards New Zealand ensures that New Zealand has a voice in the international Standards community.

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