ISO is an independent, non-governmental international organisation that develops voluntary standards based on needs expressed by its more than 160 country members. Each country can have one membership in ISO and thus one voice/vote when decisions are made regarding which standards are needed and the ISO Directives that govern standardization. ISO has, since 1947, published more than 20 000 standards. ISO-standards are only to be developed if the national member bodies vote in favour and the standard is deemed globally relevant.
Once the International Standard is published by ISO, national standards bodies consult their stakeholders and can decide if the ISO standard is needed and to (for example) be adopted as national standard or promoted as an International Standard. A published standard can voluntarily be used in trade, communication, etcetera, by anyone – not only large companies, but also others such as SMEs, NGOs, and public agencies.
Of course, anyone can develop a document and call it “an international standard” and there is no international body that recognizes or lists acknowledged “international standardizers”. However, WTO – the World Trade Organisation – has recommended six principles that should be part of the process of international standardization. International organisations can choose to adhere to these six principles, as ISO has chosen to. WTO does not list or recognize any organisation for doing so. The six principles are referred to in the foreword to ISO standards:
- impartiality and consensus;
- relevance and effectiveness;
- coherence; and
- developing country interests
Consensus (absence of sustained opposition, no voting, not necessarily unanimity) is key to the ISO standardization process and is built in two layers: first between participating experts in Working Groups (WG) and secondly deemed consensus between countries through voting/negotiations in a Sub-Committee (SC) or parent Technical Committee (TC).
Definitions are very important in standardization and ISO Guide 2 provides important definitions:
document, established by consensus and approved by a recognized body, that provides, for common and repeated use, rules, guidelines or characteristics for activities or their results, aimed at the achievement of the optimum degree of order in a given context
NOTE Standards should be based on the consolidated results of science, technology and experience, and aimed at the promotion of optimum community benefits.
activity of establishing, with regard to actual or potential problems, provisions for common and repeated use, aimed at the achievement of the optimum degree of order in a given context
NOTE 1 In particular, the activity consists of the processes of formulating, issuing and implementing standards.
NOTE 2 Important benefits of standardization are improvement of the suitability of products, processes and services for their intended purposes, prevention of barriers to trade and facilitation of technological cooperation.
Any stakeholder can propose a new standard/ISO-deliverable, normally through the national standards body. In order for a New Work Item Proposal to be accepted for standardization it needs to be well justified, globally relevant and receive an affirmative vote from the member bodies in consultation with their local stakeholders. The ISO definition of stakeholder can be found in the ISO guidelines for stakeholder engagement. Experts participating in ISO standardization are registered in the “Global Directory” in one of seven stakeholder categories: Industry and Commerce, Government, Consumers, Labour, Academic and research bodies, Standards application, Non-governmental organization (NGO).
It takes an average of approximately 3 years to develop a new standard, often less to revise an existing standard. ISO-standards are going through a systematic review every 3-5 years in order to determine if the standard needs to be revised, confirmed or potentially withdrawn if it is no longer market relevant.