White House: Tech standards are (mostly) industry's job

The White House has issued a policy memo clarifying the government’s role in setting technical standards for commercial products in an environment that is becoming increasingly global and interconnected.

The January memo makes no drastic changes in the standards-setting process, which will continue to be driven primarily by the private sector.

“Most standards developed and used in U.S markets are created with little or no government involvement,” it says, and this will remain the primary strategy. “In limited policy areas, however, where a national priority has been identified ... , active engagement or a convening role by the federal government may be needed to accelerate standards development and implementation to help spur technological advances and broaden technology adoption.”


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Areas of national priority in which the government has aggressively participated in setting standards for commercial products include cybersecurity, health care IT, clean energy and the smart grid.

The memo is the result of more than a year of study. The National Institute of Standards and Technology issued a request for comments in late 2010 on the effectiveness of the government’s standards and rule-making activity, which produced more than 1,000 pages of comments, said Mary Saunders, director of NIST’s Standards Coordination Office.

“They were telling us that the government’s activity in standards setting processes needed to be clarified,” Saunders said.

The comments contributed to an October 2011 report by the National Science and Technology Council, “Federal Engagement in Standards Activities to Address National Priorities,” which was the basis for the January memo issued jointly by the Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative and the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs within the Office of Management and Budget.

“It’s a first-of-its-kind statement on when the federal government does engage and what its objectives are,” Saunders said.

Technical standards can range from the simple, such as screw thread dimensions for bolts, to the more complex, such as requirements ensuring that computers and networking equipment conform to the Internet Protocols. These standards typically are voluntary but allow the interoperability of equipment from different providers, lowering costs for manufacturers and consumers, encouraging adoption of technology and promoting innovation on common platforms.

In areas such as health care IT and clean energy, both government and industry are making substantial investments in products and technologies that still are evolving. “In both of these technology markets, interoperability standards are needed to decrease the risk that sizable public and private investments will become obsolete prematurely,” the memo says.

The memo lays out five fundamental strategic objectives for its engagement in standards development:

  • Produce timely, effective standards and efficient conformity assessment schemes that are necessary to address a need.
  • Achieve cost-efficient, timely and effective solutions to legitimate regulatory, procurement and policy objectives.
  • Promote standards and standardization systems that sustain innovation and foster competition.
  • Enhance U.S. growth and competitiveness and ensure non-discrimination, consistent with international obligations.
  • Facilitate international trade and avoid the creation of unnecessary obstacles to trade. 

About the Author

William Jackson is freelance writer and the author of the CyberEye blog.

Reader Comments

Wed, Feb 1, 2012 CJ

The problem comes in when the "standards" are considered proprietary. If they're not truly free an open access public domain information, then they're not really standards. It's been a BIG problem in IT interoperability.

Wed, Feb 1, 2012 Walter Washington

I know parts of the EPA have been doing this for years, maybe not with such clear goals in mind. The oil spill prevention side of the EPA worked with NIST, the Steel Tank Institute, and some oil industry groups to encourage the industry to come up with oil storage tank inspection standards. Now the regs read, basically, comply with industry standards. The EPA provided the goal and industry developed and maintains the technical standards. So far, it seems to be working well, and it doesn't require the years of public hearings and comment periods required by anything the EPA generates on their own.

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