Coming to the mountain
The National Standards System Conference
March 25 - 27, 2002
It's a comic-strip cliché: the wise old hermit who lives on top of a mountain and dispenses secret wisdom to all who are willing to make the arduous climb to visit him.
Or perhaps it's not such a cliché after all. Mountains have a tendency to inspire deep thought, perhaps in imitation of their lofty height or as a consequence of the view they provide. At least, that seems to have been the experience of some 250 people who gathered earlier this year in the shadow of eastern Canada's highest peak.
Mont Ste-Anne, Quebec was the scene of "Partners in Progress", the first National Standards System Conference, which took place March 25 - 27, 2002. Hosted by the Standards Council of Canada, the Conference brought together standards and conformity assessment stakeholders from federal and provincial governments, industry, consumer and environmental organizations and clients of the Standards Council's accreditation programs.
During their two days together, they shared ideas and experiences, learned more about one another's activities and priorities, and left with a renewed enthusiasm to work with one another to advance the cause of standardization in Canada.
On the agenda
The line-up of events included plenary sessions, meals, social opportunities, workshops and the presentation of the Standards Council of Canada Awards.
The heart of the Conference was a series of seminars and information sessions, twenty in all, organized into four subject-related tracks:
- global trade;
- standards development;
- standards and regulation; and
- conformity assessment.
Attendees were invited to follow all of the sessions in one track, or to mix and match them according to their interests.
Expert speakers from the National Standards System and its foreign and international partners talked about current issues and challenges in standardization, including trade agreements, the needs of developing countries, the development of standards for electronic commerce, the application of standards to regulatory reform, and the use of conformity assessment regimes in ensuring public health and safety.
The detailed information provided in the sessions made them valuable to experts and novices alike.
A number of key themes emerged during the sessions and the daily recaps.
The global trade track highlighted the wide variety of activity taking place among national governments and accreditation bodies at the national and regional levels. These activities share a common goal: to reduce barriers to international trade while protecting social goals such as public health and safety. What can be difficult is to coordinate the actions taking place in these disparate forums. Trade activities have a considerable impact on government regulatory policy and on developing countries. These impacts need to be carefully considered in the development and implementation of trade-related agreements.
A major focus of the standards development track was the variety of perspectives, issues and needs among standards stakeholders, both at the national and international levels. Influence on and awareness of standardization practices can vary considerably among stakeholder and participants groups. Standards bodies need to recognize these differences and do what they can to resolve them.
The standards and regulation track highlighted the considerable potential that standards and conformity assessment offer in improving the ability of regulators to achieve desired conditions effectively and economically. While there are a number of examples of this potential being realized, more widespread use of standardization is still hampered by a lack of coordination, communication and awareness on the part of both regulators and standardizers.
The conformity assessment track outlined the wide variety of conformity assessment approaches being taken in various countries, industries and regulatory regimes. This diversity of approaches may be appropriate in some instances: different sectors have different needs, and the real-world application of various schemes may be the best way to determine their relative effectiveness. But this lack of consistency can also be confusing and expensive for businesses, consumers and regulators. National standards, and the trend to bring together various conformity assessment approaches under the umbrella of the National Standards System, is helping to provide some consistency.
In addition to the track-specific themes, a number of issues emerged that were applicable to the entire spectrum of standardization activity.
International focus: While strong links have been established between some parts of the National Standards System and their international counterparts - between Canadian standards development efforts and ISO and IEC, for example - there is a need to broaden this focus to encompass other areas, such as developing countries and the European Union.
Information: The National Standards System and its clients have access to considerable amounts of information that can be helpful in decision making and policy development. The trick is in making sure that information gets to the people who can most effectively us it.
Dialogue: While there's an effective flow of information between some parts of the System, many of its elements function in relative isolation from one another. There's a need to open up dialogue between parts of the System that haven't traditionally worked together, and with potential new partners outside the System.
Collaboration: Once again, while effective collaboration exists in some instances, such as in the Standards Council's accreditation programs, there are many more opportunities for partners within and outside the System to work together to their mutual benefit.
Coordination: All of these various ways of working together will require someone to coordinate efforts and activities underway within the System. The Standards Council is the natural candidate for this role, but may require additional resources and a closer working relationship with all parts of the System in order to carry it out.
Funding: Traditional sources of funding are inadequate to support the growing need for standards and conformity assessment solutions. New funding mechanisms need to be identified and cultivated.
Newcomers: As the System's reach expands, new partners are being brought on board, and longtime participants are finding themselves playing new and unfamiliar roles. The information and support needs of these new participants need to be taken into consideration.
Attendees were very positive in their assessment of the Conference. Most said they were highly satisfied, and would be willing to attend another similar event in the future. They gave high marks to the opportunity the Conference provided for networking with colleagues, the program content and the awareness they gained of the National Standards System.
Participants also offered their suggestions about ways in which future Conferences could be improved. Many commented on the number of speakers during the sessions. While the range of participants and topics was impressive, some felt that there should have been fewer speakers and more opportunities for questions and discussion. While the Conference's out-of-the-way location was scenic and conducive to focusing attention on the Conference agenda, some visitors found it to be inconvenient. Others felt that the scope of participants could be expanded to include more representatives of industry and of institutions that are currently outside the National Standards System. A few felt that the sessions were aimed at people who were already familiar with the System, and should have provided more background information to help get relative newcomers up to speed.
The Standards Council is taking all of these factors into consideration as it ponders future Conferences. While no decisions have been made yet, there appears to be strong support for holding further Conferences at two- or three-year intervals.
The road ahead
The Conference provided participants in the National Standards System with the opportunity to strengthen existing relationships, develop new ones, and gain a greater understanding of their role and the roles of others within the System. Groups such as the Standards Council's network of advisory committees are now discussing the ideas and issues that arose during the Conference, in an effort to build on the momentum established there and determine future directions and priorities.