The Standards Process - 6/1994

When I took over this column, Joseph Kleinman, the former editor, sent me a copy of the STC-65, "List of Specifications and Standards pertaining to Technical Publications." Last revised in 1983, this STC standard was ready for revision at that time (June, 1991). Pat Smith has recently contacted me to let me know that the Society is considering revisiting this standard. In light of this development, we will review the standards process itself in this issue's column.

The basis for standards activity is simple. A uniform, consistent product or policy (namely, a standard) will enhance quality and reliability. Language and coinage are two broad examples of standards [1], while a uniform gauge standard for the railroads of the United States was instrumental in developing our industrialized society. (The Association of American Railways' recommended practice B19 gage specification, dated 1895, is the oldest active standard in the U.S.)

In the United States, standards activities have developed primarily as voluntary, consensus-based efforts. In the NIST Special Publication 681, Standards Activities of Organizations in the United States, Bob Toth lists 632 trade associations, professional and technical societies, and other U.S. private sector organizations that either develop standards themselves, or work with other organizations that do. Of these organizations, the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention, founded in 1820 to adopt uniform standards for drugs, is the oldest continuously active U.S. standards developer.

The "umbrella" organization for standards in the U.S. is ANSI, the American National Standards Institute. ANSI was initiated as the American Engineering Standards Committee in 1918, as a consortium of five leading engineering societies. The goal was to create a base set of understood terms among engineers to give a commonalty to manufacturing practices in the U.S.

ANSI today helps to coordinate U.S. standards activities. It does not write standards itself, but adopts those created by other organizations as "American National Standards." Additionally, ANSI interfaces with other regional and international standards organizations and represents the U.S. in the International Standards Organization, for example. ANSI has a thorough and well balanced standards procedure that must be followed for a standard to be adopted by that Institute.

Our voluntary, consensus-driven standards process is based on a fairly straight-forward set of principles. These are due process, openness, and balance. "Due process means that any person (organization, company, government agency, individual, etc.) with a direct and material interest has a right to participate by: a) expressing a position and its basis, b) having that position considered, and, c) appealing if adversely affected." [2] Openness refers to both the removal of barriers to participation and timely notification of standards activities. And finally, balance insures that the standards process is not dominated by any single interest category.

Because ANSI operates from the position that its "ultimate client is the nation" [3], the ANSI procedures themselves detail how an organization can insure that "no single interest category constitutes more than one-third of a committee dealing with safety or ... a majority of a committee dealing with product standards." [4] This focus on standards that meet the needs of broad classes of directly and materially affected persons is one of the main strengths of our standards process.

The usual chain of events in the development, revision, or withdrawal of a standard is as follows:
1. Someone calls for standards action, or because of the passage of time (usually 5 years), a standard is put up for review. Notification is made to the public regarding upcoming standards action.
2. A committee is formed to act on the Proposal.
3. A draft standard is developed, usually accepted by two-thirds approval of the committee.
4. The draft standard is made available for public comment.
5. The committee meets to act on each public comment received. The committee votes on the standard if the comments have caused it to become amended.
6. The final draft document is forwarded to the secretariat of the committee for final approval, usually by vote of the organization itself.
7. Complaints regarding the final draft standard, or any procedures involved in developing the standard, must be brought to the Secretariat within a set period of time. Usually the Secretariat will have a set period of time within which to respond.
8. The approved document becomes a standard. [5]

Some hallmarks of this process are public notification of the standards process throughout the cycle, the need for approval by two-thirds of those voting for critical actions, and the appeal mechanism. A standard that has gone through this process may or may not be submitted to ANSI for inclusion as an American National Standard. However, ANSI will verify that all submitted standards have been through a process that meets its procedural requirements before granting the ANS status.

If you are interested in the Standards process, and in standards in general, you may be interested in joining the Standards Engineering Society. They are located at 1706 Darst Avenue, Dayton, Ohio 45403-3104. They not only publish a bimonthly newsletter, hold conventions and training sessions, and enable you to meet the experts and leaders in the world of standardization, but they also offer certification.

1. Information Technology Standardization: Theory, Process, and Organizations, Carl F. Cargill, 1989, Digital Press, Bedford, Massachusetts
2. Procedures for the Development and Coordination of American National Standards, American National Standards Institute, 1993, ANSI, New York, NY
3. Cargill, as above.
4. ANSI, as above.
5. Broadly taken from "NFPA Standards-Making System", National Fire Protection Association, 1994, Quincy, Massachusetts

Claudia Bach is President of Document Center, Inc., an information delivery service based in Belmont, CA. The company has complete collections of specifications and standards from both government sources and industry associations. She can be reached by phone at (650) 591-7600, by fax at (650) 591-7617, or by e-mail at, or see  

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