Setting Standards for Your Standard-Setting Process

A recently published study that questions the American Bar Association’s judicial qualification rankings serves as a good reminder of the importance of an open and fair standard-setting process. One expert offers advice on how organizations can do that for their industries.

Associations give their seal of approval (or disapproval) to everything from bridges to beer. Groups that set industry standards or evaluate professional qualifications should take heed from a recent critique of the American Bar Association’s influential judicial qualifications ratings system.

For more than 50 years, U.S. presidents and senators have relied on the ABA rankings when deciding whether to nominate or confirm a candidate for a federal judgeship. The rankings, which rate federal nominees as “well qualified,” “qualified,” or “not qualified,” carry a significant amount of weight and are consistently under fire from members of Congress for being politically biased one way or the other.

“The key is to have a clear set of procedures that are implemented in a way so people have certainty that their views will be considered.”

However, a study recently published in the Journal of Law and Court [PDF], which looked at more than 1,700 ABA ratings of nominees to federal district courts since 1960, showed that there was no politicking going on. What it did find, though, is that minority and female candidates were consistently rated lower than white male candidates.

“If there was bias here, that would trouble me. I’m confident, though, there is not,” ABA President James Silkenat recently told NPR.

He went on to say that ABA uses a careful selection process when organizing the panel that rates judges. Being mindful to include individuals with “impeccable credentials and diverse backgrounds” helps to eliminate bias from the process, he said.

While those elements are important, Anne Caldas, senior director of procedures and standards for the American National Standards Institute, said associations can go even further to ensure an industry’s standard-setting process is fair.

ANSI—an organization that supports and accredits standards-making bodies across a variety of industries—has a number of essential requirements [PDF] that it asks groups to follow in order to achieve accreditation.

“The hallmark requirements are things like openness, lack of dominance, balance, adequate public notice of activity, and consensus,” Caldas said. “You have to provide a due-process-based framework that, by definition, levels the playing field and allows all interested parties to participate in the standards-development process.”

Even with a fair and open process there is bound to be some debate over the finished product, said Caldas.

“When you bring stakeholders with disparate views together controversy can be a natural result,” she said. “The key is to have a clear set of procedures that are implemented in a way so people have certainty that their views will be considered.”

Keeping the standard-making process and the standard itself up to date is important as well.

“There have to be procedures that address the maintenance and review of the content of the standard,” Caldas said. “It’s a series of checks and balances. It’s not that you look at something once and say it’s OK forever. That applies equally to the process as it does to the deliverables: the standards.”


Rob Stott

By Rob Stott

Rob Stott is a contributing editor for Associations Now. MORE

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