Metric Conversion:

Future Progress Depends Upon Private Sector and Public Support

RCED-94-23: Published: Jan 13, 1994. Publicly Released: Feb 2, 1994.

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Pursuant to a legislative mandate, GAO reviewed federal agencies' conversion to the metric system, focusing on the agencies': (1) establishment of metric guidelines and preparation of transition reports; (2) use of the metric system in their procurements; (3) use of the metric system in grants and other business activities; and (4) dealings with the private sector and public attitudes toward conversion.

GAO found that: (1) most federal agencies have issued guidelines and prepared transition plans and progress reports for their metric conversion activities since 1990; (2) some agencies have made little progress towards metric conversion, particularly the Department of Education, which is the lead agency for metric educational information; (3) most agencies face serious metric implementation problems because of the predominance of nonmetric products, their inability to influence the private sector to convert to the metric system, and their difficulty in defining terms; (4) the Department of Defense and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration have requested waivers from metric requirements, but they are continuing to encourage metrification of subsystems as an alternative to waiving metric requirements; (5) only research grants presently require the use of the metric system, but federal regulations may be revised to require other grant activities to use the metric system; (6) agencies' other business-related activities have made progress toward metrication; (7) agencies cite private sector and public resistance to metric conversion as the reason for their slow progress; and (8) the federal government must have the support of the private sector and the public for successful conversion to the metric system.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Interagency Committee on Metric Policy approved a motion to incorporate the subsystem approach as an acceptable option in its metric procurement guidelines.

    Recommendation: As an alternative to exempting entire systems from metric requirements, agencies should adopt a subsystem approach to metric conversion where a total conversion is unfeasible. The Interagency Committee on Metric Policy should establish this policy and make it known to its member agencies.

    Agency Affected: Interagency Committee on Metric Policy

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Commerce concurs with the recommendation. Working with ICMP, Commerce is implementing a plan that encourages a broad national dialogue on metric conversion. The plan includes meetings and workshops, information and awareness campaigns, consultation with industry and the public, and other outreach programs. The first achievement of this effort was the Metric Town Meeting held in March 1995 at NIST. Speakers from a variety of groups explained their concerns and ideas for accelerating national metrication to a panel of government executives representing most major federal agencies. Commerce and ICMP continue to be committed to increasing the support and involvement of the general public, industry, and state and local governments. By encouraging a broad national dialogue, the government will improve the ability to formulate and exchange metrication strategies and initiatives. This will facilitate cooperation in setting priorities and removing impediments.

    Recommendation: Now that most agencies have made significant progress in preparing for metric conversion, the Secretary of Commerce should explore ways for bringing together the government, the private sector, and the public to discuss the next steps in decisionmaking about metric conversion. To assist in this effort, the Secretary should prepare and implement a detailed plan for encouraging this broader national dialogue.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce


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