The open session on "International standards and public policies" organized by ISO as part of the programme of its 30th General Assembly in Geneva, Switzerland, last week highlighted the contribution of ISO standards to sustainable development, safety and security. Delegates from 125 countries and 22 international and regional organizations participated in the event attended by more than 400 participants.

The session took place on 20 September 2007 at the International Conference Centre Geneva (CICG). It featured two panels composed of leaders from governments, international organizations, business and societal interests:

  • The first panel addressed how international standards can support public policies for sustainable development. This panel was moderated by Mr. Paul Hohnen of the Netherlands, an international consultant on sustainability strategies.
  • The second panel focused on international standards in relation to public safety and security policies. It was moderated by Prof. Jonanthan Koppell (see below).

At this open session, public policies were considered in the broad sense, covering technical regulations relating to public responsibilities such as safety, security, health, social protection or the environment, as well as policies to support research and development and encourage innovation and its dissemination, the competitiveness of industry, the quality and efficiency of public services and public procurements, among other aspects.

Mr. Sergei Ordzhonikidze (right), United Nations Under-Secretary-General, and Director-General of the United Nations Office in Geneva, with ISO Secretary-General Alan Bryden.

The event was officially opened by Mr. Sergei Ordzhonikidze, United Nations Under-Secretary-General, and Director-General of the United Nations Office in Geneva, who described how the work of ISO helps to advance the UN's broader efforts, including those towards meeting the United Nations Millennium Development Goals.

"Internationally agreed standards help to build capacity, open up markets, facilitate trade and nurture technological innovation," he said.  "They create a level playing field for producers and they provide transparency, reliability and accountability for consumers.

"As detailed technical agreements, international standards contribute to advancing our collective efforts across the three pillars of the sustainable development challenge:  the economic, the environmental and the societal dimensions."

Mr. Ordzhonikidze pointed out that as drivers of economic growth, international standards benefit both developing and developed countries.

He also spoke on climate change, describing it as "an urgent and ever-growing challenge, with global implications for development and for security". Mr. Ordzhonikidze underlined the strengthened political resolve to tackle the climate challenge and declared: "This shared determination must be supported by practical tools that allow us to act. International standards are among those instruments and I therefore welcome ISO’s sustained focus on the environmental field, including on environmental labelling, management and communication, as well as accounting and verification of greenhouse gas emissions."  

The UN Under-Secretary-General evoked other areas of ISO's work with societal implications: "Through standards covering areas as diverse as health technologies, workplace safety, disaster relief and consumer protection, ISO makes a considerable contribution to the societal dimension of our sustainable development task. The ongoing work to craft an international standard for social responsibility is especially noteworthy in this respect."  

Opening remarks on "The politics of quasi-government and the role of international standards in relation to public policies in the globalized world" were presented by Prof. Jonathan Koppell, Associate Professor of Politics and Management and Director of the Millstein Center for Corporate Government and Performance, Yale School of Management, USA, who also moderated the second of panels referred to above.

Reliance on ISO standards in regulations

Prof. Koppell said that although ISO is nongovernmental, the reliance of so many government bodies on ISO standards in their regulations underscores the governmental connection. "I would argue," he said," that many international standards constitute public policy because they are – very frequently, at least – attempts to create or preserve public goods: shared commodities that cannot be divided or avoided. These are highlighted in the two panels: safety, security and environmental quality are classic, quintessential public goods."

Prof. Koppell went on to list five ways in which "standards shape the public space".
"First," he said, "standards not only guide industries and individual firms; they are integrated into national regulations and laws and referenced in international treaties.
"Second, ISO standards create market incentives for private sector actors to follow the law by applying competitive pressure as an enforcement mechanism.
"Third, standards guide public procurement. By facilitating greater transparency and competition, standards act as a barrier to corruption and bolster good government.
"Fourth, standards allow for communication and coordination across borders in a wide variety of policy fields including health, safety and development.
"Fifth, standards can shape technological development. This is subtle but important point in that typically, responsiveness to technological change is emphasized. Effective standards bodies must actually anticipate technological development and enable it by setting the foundation."

Prof. Koppell summed up this section of his presentation by affirming: "The publicness of these functions renders ISO (and other organizations) standards 'public policy'."

Good practice, good governance

The impetus for the open session comes from the realization that in the globalized world, public policies can no longer be developed and implemented in isolation when they impact on trade, health, security or the environment. Increasingly, the use and referencing of standards, based on consensus among the stakeholders, form part of good regulatory practice and good public governance.

Because of the globalization of trade, healthcare, climate change and security, as well as  the pervasiveness of information and communication technologies, international standards are more and more in demand.

Moreover, the 151 signatories to the World Trade Organization are committed to using international standards in order not to create unnecessary technical barriers to trade through unharmonized regulations and conformity assessment requirements.

  • ISO and its partner the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) have just published the document Using and referencing ISO and IEC standards for technical regulations (ISBN 978-92-67-10454-6), which was distributed at the ISO open session. It includes practical advice for regulators on how to use international standards to achieve their objectives.
  • The main theme of the September 2007 issue of ISO Focus magazine is "Standards and the citizen: contributing to society" which is also the theme of this year's World Standards Day on 14 October. This issue also includes a guest interview with the Swiss Minister of Economy, Doris Leuthard.

The panelists at the morning session, which addressed international standards in support of public policies for sustainable development.