National Institute of Standards and Technology:

Additional Review and Coordination Could Help Meet Measurement Service Needs and Strengthen Standards Activities

GAO-18-445: Published: Jul 26, 2018. Publicly Released: Jul 26, 2018.

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The National Institute of Standards and Technology helps promote U.S. innovation and industrial competitiveness by providing measurement services and supporting the development of standards in collaboration with the private sector. For example, it provides calibrations for equipment used in high-precision manufacturing and it helps industry develop standards for fire safety, among other things.

We found NIST has taken steps to address challenges it faces in prioritizing and coordinating its work, but that it could better align its work with its policies and best practices. We made several recommendations on how to address these challenges.

NIST once used platinum-iridium meter bars such as these to ensure U.S. measurements would match other users of the international system of units.

Photo of meter-long metal bars made of a platinum and iridium alloy.

Photo of meter-long metal bars made of a platinum and iridium alloy.

Additional Materials:

Contact:

John Neumann
(202) 512-3841
neumannj@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

What GAO Found

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) faces challenges in providing measurement services and supporting private sector development of specifications for products' designs or performance—referred to as “documentary standards.” Based on reviews of relevant testimony, reports, and other documents; interviews with stakeholders; and focus groups with academics and industry representatives, GAO identified challenges including:

  • Identifying and prioritizing what measurement services, such as calibrating large force-measurement tools used by aerospace manufacturers, or what documentary standards activities, such as serving as a technical advisor on fire safety standards, are most needed by U.S. industry, and
  • Coordinating with other federal agencies on standards development issues.

NIST has taken steps to address these challenges, including industry outreach and reviews of measurement services and standards activities. However, some efforts do not fully align with federal guidance or NIST policy. For example, NIST's measurement-services and standards-activity reviews have not included a comprehensive examination of how these services and standards activities align with stakeholder needs. Federal internal control standards call for managers to use quality information to determine if the agency is meeting its objectives. Comprehensively reviewing NIST's measurement services and documentary-standards activities would provide NIST with greater confidence that its services and activities align with stakeholders' needs.

GAO also found that NIST coordinates with other agencies on standards development and related activities, but that some efforts do not fully align with specific leading practices GAO has previously identified for enhancing and sustaining interagency collaboration. For example, NIST and other agencies coordinate on standards activities through a NIST-chaired interagency committee. However, GAO found that the committee has not updated its charter since 2000—contrary to leading practices to update and monitor collaborative agreements. GAO also found that NIST has not worked with other committee members to fully clarify agencies' roles and responsibilities. Without ensuring that member agencies' roles and responsibilities are current and fully clarified, NIST and other agencies may miss opportunities to strengthen coordination.

Examples of National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Measurement Services

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Why GAO Did This Study

The U.S. Department of Commerce's NIST provides measurement services and supports standards that promote U.S. competitiveness. For example, NIST provides calibrations for manufacturing equipment and reference materials used in testing. NIST also supports private sector organizations in developing standards to help ensure product performance, among other things, such as Wi-Fi. In recent years, NIST has sought to improve the delivery of its services and documentary standards activities.

GAO was asked to review NIST measurement services and standards-support activities. This report examines (1) the challenges NIST faces in providing measurement services and supporting documentary standards development, and (2) the extent to which NIST has taken steps to address these challenges and how those steps align with federal guidance and policy. GAO analyzed testimony, reports, laws, and policies; conducted focus groups with academics and industry representatives; and interviewed various stakeholders.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is making seven recommendations, including that NIST comprehensively review measurement services and documentary-standards activities, and work with other agencies to take steps to strengthen interagency coordination. The Department of Commerce agreed with six recommendations and disagreed with one, citing risks to the private-sector-led U.S. standards system. GAO clarified its recommendation and continues to believe this action is needed, as discussed in the report.

For more information, contact John Neumann at (202) 512-3841 or neumannj@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The NIST Associate Director for Laboratory Programs should update NIST policy to include periodic comprehensive management review of the agency's measurement services to assess gaps and ensure alignment with stakeholders' needs, and take steps to ensure that the Associate Director completes the review of NIST's standards development activities (Recommendation 1).

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce: National Institute of Standards and Technology

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The NIST Standards Coordination Office Director should update NIST policy for staff participation in standards development activities to provide additional guidance, such as the factors staff could consider when deciding to take more active roles, including leading efforts to develop standards (Recommendation 2).

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce: National Institute of Standards and Technology

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The NIST Standards Coordination Office Director should assess the feasibility of collecting aggregate data on the estimated amount of time staff spend on documentary standards activities (Recommendation 3).

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce: National Institute of Standards and Technology

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Director of NIST should establish a mechanism--such as guidelines for what constitutes adequate U.S. representation--to assess whether U.S. representation in international standards development organizations is adequate, and when to follow the statutory process for addressing inadequate U.S. representation. If NIST determines that it is unable to implement the process described in the 1979 act without conflicting with current standards policy, the Director of NIST should develop a legislative proposal to address those concerns (Recommendation 4).

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce: National Institute of Standards and Technology

  5. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The NIST Standards Coordination Office Director, working with other Interagency Committee on Standards Policy (ICSP) member agencies, should review and, as necessary, update the ICSP charter (Recommendation 5).

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce: National Institute of Standards and Technology

  6. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The NIST Standards Coordination Office Director, working with other ICSP member agencies, should clearly define ICSP roles and member agencies' responsibilities, such as for identifying and coordinating on interdisciplinary documentary standards issues and for making recommendations, as appropriate, to the Secretary of Commerce (Recommendation 6).

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce: National Institute of Standards and Technology

  7. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The NIST Standards Coordination Office Director, working with other ICSP member agencies, should assess whether additional agencies or sub-component offices should be invited to participate as ICSP members or observers (Recommendation 7).

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce: National Institute of Standards and Technology

 

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