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Mapping the Standards Maze

Written by Shawn Coyne-Nalbach for Nuclear Standards News (Vol. 30, No. 2; Mar-Apr, 1999).

This past autumn I saw my first corn field maze. Corridors lined with seven feet tall corn stalks leading only to more corridors that mystify the journeyer who hopes to reach the finish line. I must confess: I was absolutely intrigued. The possibilities seemed endless and the completion seemed immensely satisfying. Perhaps it is for some of the same reasons that a corn maze attracted my attention, that I am a part of the ANS standards department. There are those, even some standards volunteers, who consider the standards process a labyrinth. I, however, don't see it so. What I do see are many possibilities, plenty of corridors of expertise, and a quality document at the finish line. So to clear up some of the confusion, let's see if we can navigate our way through the ANS standards process.

The first step to any labyrinth is to get your entrance ticket. Out in a corn field, it'll cost you about $7.00; in the standards world, it's a matter of a simple form. The conception of any standard is the project charter. More than just a form, the project charter states the proposed title and scope of a new project. The entire hierarchy of ANS standards committees reviews this two page document. Once consensus is reached, ANS submits the charter to the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) for its official start as a project.

Enter the first corridor of any maze and you'll know that your work is about to begin, but you won't walk this hallway alone. ANS working groups parent a standard during its infant stage. A working group is composed of a small number (six to twelve) of experts in the specified field. Together they write the standard that you will eventually purchase.

Once the working group has finalized a draft of a standard, the subcommittee reviews it. Each subcommittee has a slightly broader focus and thus is able to oversee several working groups. The ANS subcommittee will ballot the draft and provide comments when appropriate. This procedure is not the official ballot, however. It really acts as a review process. So, when you reach the end of the subcommittee corridor, you'll need to make a right turn to begin balloting.

The balloting process, also called the consensus process, is conducted by the aptly named consensus committees. ANS consensus committees range in size from 17 to 28 people. These groups attest to their balance of interest categories on an annual basis (allowing no more than one-third to come from one area). Each consensus committee has its own scope within the nuclear field. Generally, a consensus committee will review a standard for six weeks, it's ballot period, providing comments as appropriate. At the same time as this ballot period, a public review period occurs allowing all interested individuals to comment on the standard.

Standards development organizations toss the word "consensus" around, but what do they really mean? To begin, consensus does not mean unanimous. ANSI defines it as a point when substantial agreement is reached. ANS holds this policy, but also backs it up with specific rules about percentage of approval votes, number and origin of negative votes, etc. One of the most important components of this process is the responsibility to address all comments. This does not require all comments to be resolved or implemented, but the merit of each reply, from the public or from committee members, must be considered. While this policy may seem cumbersome at times, it helps to ensure the best standards.

So far we've pointed out three opportunities for proposed standard to be reviewed and receive comments, but who addresses these comments? All comments return to the working group. The working groups can implement the suggestion or argue against the suggestion, but they must reply to the comment in some way. Now if changes result that substantially revise the draft, you have to make a right turn at the end of the corridor that will take you back to the subcommittee where review will begin again. If, however, there are no changes or changes are not substantive, you can make a left turn and visit the Standards Steering Committee.

The final stage is certification by the Standards Steering Committee (SSC). The SSC has a prescribed size of no more than 10 individuals. It not only oversees all standards activities, but also verifies that all appropriate procedural steps have occurred for each standard. It doesn't review the document, but does attest to the process.

And now the proposed draft is ready for submittal to ANSI for its official approval. The blue and white documents you purchase from ANS have more than a title on the cover. All ANS standards include an American National Standards Institute certification. While the title calls it an American National Standard, it was created only by ANS. ANSI's role is to accredit ANS as a standards development organization and approve our standards. Thus, you will always find a duel designation.

It would appear that the finish line has been crossed and goal achieved. However, some additional information will make the turns of that maze a bit more obvious. As can be plainly seen, the standards process is one of many levels or corridors. To some, it seems a bit complicated. However, not only does the procedure guarantee what is called "due process" in the standards world, but it is conducted within a narrow focus, making it less complex and ensuring the appropriate expertise. Each consensus committee, as mentioned before, has a prescribed purpose. At present, ANS has the following consensus committees:

  • N16, Nuclear Criticality Safety
  • N17, Research Reactors, Reactor Physics, Radiation Shielding, and Computational Methods
  • NFSC, Nuclear Facilities Standards Committee (formerly NUPPSCO and N48)

Outside of ANS, other standards development organizations have prescribed scopes for their consensus committees and the nuclear standards they produce. This allows for appropriate expertise and few arguments over the right parentage of a standard.

But there will always be those who won't be intrigued by a maze. Some individuals don't understand why one would want to navigate through the standards process. ANS has always held standards to be an important part of the society and anyone understanding the process will tell you of the quality of ANS standards. Recently, however, our standards and those of other organizations have taken on a greater importance. In 1998, the Office of Management and Budget released Circular A-119. This document states that government agencies must use voluntary consensus standards instead of government produced standards unless "inconsistent with law or otherwise impractical. This document opens many possibilities for ANS. Organizational standards may now be in greater demand; government agencies may provide funding for standard development. All of this only builds on the importance of standards.

As mentioned earlier, even members of the standards development process sometimes find it maze-like. Indeed, just the development flowchart looks a bit confusing. However, how it's characterized isn't nearly as important as what it does. What remains important is the quality that goes into an ANS standard and the corps of dedicated and talented volunteers who make it happen.

Last modified July 3, 2014, 12:33pm CDT

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