KANBrief 2/11

From DIN A4 to social responsibility: a paradigm shift in standardization?

Over 100 interested individuals responded on 31 March 2011 to the invitation by KAN, the DGUV (German Social Accident Insurance) and the EBD (Network European Movement Germany) to attend a panel discussion in Berlin concerning current developments in standardization. Chaired by Gregor Doepke (DGUV), the panel comprising Mariana Bode (BMWi), Michael Koll (BMAS) and Dr. Albert Hövel (DIN) discussed topics including the EU’s initiatives for amendments to the standardization system.

For some time, standardization has been venturing beyond its traditional technical areas to address new topics such as services or social responsibility. But how do the various parties to standardization view this change?

Standardization: addressing new topics

Dr. Hövel of DIN dispelled the widespread misconception that standards bodies are driving the extension of standardization’s scope. Standards bodies are of course keen to address new, innovative ideas, and to do so at the earliest possible stage. However, they implement only what is submitted to them by interested parties. For representatives of industry bodies, it is important above all for the body of standards to remain manageable for users, and not to become an excessive burden for companies: as little as possible should be standardized, and as much as necessary.

The trend towards greater standardization in non-technical areas, a consequence of global trade, was the subject of intense debate: this trade often results in not only products being exported, but also the associated services. DIN’s customers are therefore also increasingly calling for standards governing process management, sustainability and the security industry. Mariana Bode (BMWi) emphasized that standards could assist in creating transparency, a common understanding, and in particular safety for employees and consumers. Michael Koll (BMAS) took a more differentiated view. Not all topics, he said, are suitable for standardization. Standards are for example indispensable for safe work equipment. How employees are to use this equipment must however remain the preserve of statutory regulations.

A further trend can also be observed, beginning in fast-moving sectors such as that of information technology: fora and consortia are often formed at an early stage of innovation which develop standards of their own and, in contrast to “proper” standards, without seeking a consensus among all stakeholders. Representatives from government departments, standardization bodies and enterprise were in agreement that this trend must be resisted, for example by the definition of binding rules for the development of non-consensus-based specifications where safety aspects are affected. Dr. Hövel (DIN) added that the standards organizations are continually improving their procedures in order to accelerate the standardization processes and to make them more attractive for fast-moving sectors.

The audience articulated the desire for standards supporting implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Such standards should for example improve access to workplaces for disabled people or make equipment easier to operate.

Changes to the European standardization system

The European Commission has announced that it will be publishing a proposal in the near future for a new regulation governing European standardization. The comments by the panel and the audience on the possible changes that have already been announced revealed broad agreement:

  • The proposal that pan-European industry bodies be granted voting rights would undermine the proven principle of national delegation, and was therefore unpopular.
  • A decentralized system of standardization grants access to all stakeholders at national level, especially SMEs, and enables them to reach a consensus in their respective national languages.
  • In Germany, the stakeholders co-operate well with the standards organizations; this experience should be exploited at European level in the discussions by the Council and the Parliament.
  • It is essential that political decision-makers set out precisely the areas in which use is to be made of standards.

Finally, it was emphasized again that opportunity exists for stakeholder participation, including by stakeholder groups with weaker representation. It is important that those concerned actually take advantage of the existing opportunities for participation.

Ulrich Bamberg