Certification Requirements:

New Guidance Should Encourage Transparency in Agency Decisionmaking

GGD-99-170: Published: Sep 24, 1999. Publicly Released: Sep 24, 1999.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed federal agencies' certification requirements for goods and services, focusing on: (1) the extent and variety of certification activities in the federal government; (2) the extent to which there are policies, procedures, or guidance governing those activities, either governmentwide or within selected agencies; and (3) an agency certification procedure that could serve as an example or best practice for other agencies.

GAO noted that: (1) federal agencies engage in a large number and wide variety of certification-related activities; (2) the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) publishes directories listing more than 200 federal government procurement and regulatory programs in which agencies provide or require certification, accreditation, listing, or registration; (3) these directories provide only a partial inventory of agencies' activities because they focus primarily on certifications of products and services and they do not cover individual procurement actions in which agencies require particular certifications; (4) certification activities also vary across multiple dimensions, including the origin of the requirements, their targets, which entities do the certifying, whether the certifications are mandatory or voluntary, and the extent to which there is reciprocity with or recognition of other certifications or requirements; (5) specific guidance regarding the selection of specific requirements or certifying organizations is limited; (6) federal procurement law imposes some limits on agencies' use of certification requirements, restricting the use of certification requirements to instances in which the requirements are specifically imposed by law or the agencies show a particular need and, if possible, allow for alternatives; (7) some agencies have established certification procedures and criteria for individual programs, and agency officials identified some related policies, procedures and guidance that can affect their certification activities; (8) there is no governmentwide guidance, or agencywide guidance in the five agencies that GAO reviewed, regarding all types of certification requirements; (9) NIST has prepared draft guidance on conformity assessment activities, including certification, which it plans to issue for public comment; (10) one best practice that GAO has supported in the regulatory arena, transparency of decisionmaking, also appears applicable to certification requirements, particularly given the complexity and diversity of certification activities and organizations; (11) in the certification actions that GAO examined, the criteria that the agencies used to establish a particular requirement or select a particular certifying organization were very clear in some instances but not clear in others; (12) other agencies' certification actions were not as transparent and certification bodies that were not selected raised questions about the criteria that agencies used; and (13) in each of those cases, agency officials were able to provide the rationale for their actions.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In final policy guidance issued in August 2000, the National Institute of Standards and Technology within the Department of Commerce noted the recommendation and, in response, noted that it added a new item to section 287.4 of the guidance to address this issue. Specifically, the guidance says that each agency should "provide a rationale for its use of specified conformity assessment procedures and processes in rulemaking and procurement actions to the extent feasible."

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Commerce should include a section in the conformity assessment guidance being developed that specifically addresses the transparency of agencies' certification decisionmaking. Specifically, the guidance should encourage agencies to publicly explain why particular certification decisions were made or how certification decisions in the future will be made. The guidance agencies should present alternative approaches for the agencies to consider in making their certification decisions more transparent, but it should not advocate that a single approach be used in all circumstances.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce


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