Consensus in the Standards World

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Source:  Mary C. McKiel, PhD, Communications Liaison Officer

Not all standards are developed in a process that requires consensus, balance, openness, and due process. For example, industry standards, consortia standards, and regulatory standards are developed through their own unique documented procedures and are incredibly useful for their intended purposes. However, in the larger United States and international systems that develop broader voluntary standards (i.e., standards that are inherently volunteer, except when called for in regulations, policy, contracts, or any vehicle that requires their use), process attributes are essential for supporting compatibility and reliability, encouraging innovation, and providing alternatives to regulations, where possible.

The AAFS Standards Board (ASB), like other accredited standards developers, has established Consensus Bodies (CBs) populated with qualified volunteers. Each CB is subject to the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) rules found in the ANSI Essential Requirements:  Due process requirements for American National Standards. The makeup of each CB represents a balance of interest to the maximum extent practical, must be open to the public, and must follow rules of due process. So, what is consensus?

One commonly employed definition refers to consensus as the lack of sustained opposition; another says that consensus is the same as a majority. Almost everyone, pardon the pun, agrees that consensus is not unanimity. None of these concepts is particularly concrete. It turns out, that in standards parlance, consensus is a specific type of vote and the way to “get to” a consensus vote is by following procedures for decision making. To understand this in the context of standards development, consider just the initial workflow within an ASB CB:

  1. ASB CB – Receives or initiates a draft standard.
  2. CB members discuss and decide on revisions to the draft standard. Informal votes are taken at this stage to identify where members agree or disagree on elements of the draft and to lay the framework for resolving disagreements, where possible. Discussions and debates follow Robert’s Rules of Order to ensure that all interests are considered.
  3. The CB chair calls for a consensus vote to determine the disposition of the document. After the CB members have completed discussions to the extent possible, a formal consensus vote is taken. If two-thirds of the CB approve, the document is forwarded to the Secretariat for public review.

Similarly, following public review, the CB must resolve all substantive negative comments by going through a process of discussion, deliberation, and debate that culminates in a consensus vote to either continue working out significant disagreements or to send the document to the next step in becoming an American National Standard.

Consensus in standards development, then, is a measurement of sufficient CB agreement to move a document forward in the overall process. It is true that a consensus vote does not imply unanimity, but it does signal that at least two-thirds of the members are willing to move on even if there are still some areas needing resolution.

In the development of voluntary standards for forensic use, due process, balance, and openness provide the structure for discussion of varied interests and needs in addition to technical and scientific accuracy. Consensus voting is the key to arriving at a standard that will speak to — and even appeal to — the broadest possible community of users and, ultimately, that is the hoped-for goal.