U.S. Updates Standards Guidance for Federal Agencies

On Jan. 27, the White House Office of Management and Budget updated its guidance to U.S. federal agencies on the use of voluntary consensus standards for government purposes and how to work with standards development organizations such as ASTM International.

ASTM International has worked in public-private collaboration with the U.S. federal government since we were founded in 1898. Today, over 1,400 individuals from federal agencies participate in the important work of ASTM technical committees.

As a not-for-profit and non-governmental organization, ASTM develops consensus standards that are strictly voluntary. Agencies often choose to use our standards for regulatory or procurement purposes. ASTM maintains a reading room on our website where the public can access and view standards used in U.S. regulations at no cost.

It has been 18 years since there has been a revision to the U.S. federal guidance document, titled Circular A-119: "Federal Participation in the Development and Use of Voluntary Consensus Standards and in Conformity Assessment Activities." While the guidance is comprehensive and runs 43 pages in length, there are a few key takeaways.

First, A-119 requires federal agencies to maintain strong preference for using voluntary consensus standards instead of government-unique standards when it comes to regulations and contracting. Codifying the public law known as the National Technology Transfer and Advancement Act of 1995, this private-sector-led approach reaffirms that the U.S. government should be a partner in standards development, not a competitor.

Second, A-119 provides support to federal agency representatives who want to get involved (and vote) in standards development at places like ASTM International. Specifically, the new guidance allows for "full involvement in discussions and technical debates, registering of opinions, and, if selected, serving as chairpersons (or other leadership positions) or in other official capacities." Note that this does not apply in all cases and it does not always mean that U.S. federal agencies ultimately agree with the voluntary consensus standards that are created.

Third, A-119 emphasizes that federal agencies should evaluate whether a standard they want to use was created through a process that is open, balanced, and consensus-driven; provides for due process; and meets principles outlined by the World Trade Organization's Technical Barriers to Trade Agreement. The guidance also encourages federal agencies to consider whether the standard is of sufficient technical quality, whether it is performance-based, and whether the standards body keeps the standard up-to-date with new technologies and changes in the marketplace.

Fourth, A-119 encourages agencies to consider the costs to the public of accessing a standard when proposed regulations are receiving public comments and also after those regulations are published. Importantly, the revised circular also directs agencies to "respect the copyright owner's interest in protecting its intellectual property."

A-119 also has several other positive changes, such as elevating the role of the standards leaders at each agency and better coordinating, tracking and reporting the government's engagement in standards development.

ASTM International will monitor the impact of this important new guidance from the U.S. federal government. More broadly, we will continue to welcome participation from both public and private sector experts on a global scale as we continue to meet our mission of helping our world work better.

If you have any questions about the updated guidance from Circular A-119, please contact me.

Jeffrey Grove is ASTM's vice president of global policy and industry affairs.

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