What will Trump mean for business self-regulation?

What will happen to the world of self-regulation and standard setting under the Trump administration? That's the administration that promises, by the way, to deregulate, deregulate, deregulate.

That was the question I posed to Katharine "Kathie" Morgan, incoming president of ASTM International, a nonprofit in West Conshohocken which convenes committees that develop voluntary standards for scores of products and services, from toys to pipes, to cement, to fire protection garments. By law, for example, every toy sold in America, regardless of where it is manufactured, has to meet ASTM standard F963.

ASTM's 230 employees don't set the standard themselves. They convene groups of manufacturers, consumer advocates, consumers, scientists, all specialists in their fields, who develop the standards. The standards are voluntary. Sometimes they inform regulations, which, are anything but voluntary, and often, an anathema to businesses.

 

"I think it's hard to predict anything at this point under the Trump administration -- very difficult," Morgan said during our Executive Q&A published in the business section of Sunday's Philadelphia Inquirer. "My world is voluntary consensus standards and that's at the core of what ASTM does . We don't create them. Our members create those standards and the government is actually an active participant in standards development projects.

"It's a fascinating thing. In the U.S., we call it the public private partnership, so the government is working with private industry and in an a non-profit organization like ASTM to create voluntary consensus standards. We work in 90 different industry sectors, so anything you can think of, there's probably an ASTM standard somewhere at work.

"We do work very closely with the government because they are engaged in our process. There is a also a regulatory framework within the United States that was actually put into the effect by the Clinton administration. It's called the National Technology Transfer and Advancement Act (NTTAA). I believe it was in 1996. An oversimplification of what it says is that government agencies should utilize the product of voluntary standards organizations (like ASTM) and government agency personnel should participate in the voluntary standards, so that law really does provide this nice framework for the public-private partnership.

Question: That sets the framework, as you said. Now what?

Answer: So, we have a new administration coming in. We've been working with some continuity over the past eight years. Unfortunately, you never get much more than eight years of continuity in government, so there's constant turnover, constant change. 

One of our priorities in 2017 is going to be getting to Washington. We have an office in Washington and we have some staff there and we're just a train ride away. We're going to be down in Washington meeting with some new faces, introducing ourselves, explaining ASTM, explaining standards and the roles [government] plays in the public-private partnership. Some people will know a lot about it and others, depending on their learning, will know nothing. So we are going down there, creating these relationships again and listening, and understanding what the priorities of the agencies are. There may be some new priorities with the new administration. You may see some shift in priorities. 

Q: Who is on the committees from the government? 

A: It could be agency personnel. For instance in our consumer products committee where we are writing standards for toys, we have the Consumer Product Safety Commission. So we have engineers, engineers from the commission. They are government career staffers and those relationships will maintain, but the commissioners themselves may change with the new administration. They likely will change, we need to get back and connect with the leadership of the agency and make sure they understand the NTTAA and that they understand how critical it is that government continues to participate in the voluntary standards process. We want to make sure the policy that surrounds standard issues  doesn't restrict their engagement and inhibit their participation. 

Q: Is that a concern?

A: Well, sure, because it's always a budgetary issue, although the government would never be able to replicate the process ASTM has in place -- the infrastructure that we've been able to build and the technology that we've employed to run this machine and develop standards. They would not be able to replicate that, so it behooves them to participate. 

Q: When you say budget, is it an issue of whether government agencies and departments will fund personnel to attend the standards setting meetings?

A: Each agencies has a set of objectives, so it's where in their prioritization of the objectives standards work fall. 

Q: Do the priorities of the departments change with the administrations? For example, does it show up whether administrations want tighter or looser standards?

A: It's certainly possible. Everyone that participates that comes together on one of our committees, they have a motivation for being there. There is something they want to accomplish, so everyone comes with a bias or a goal and differing viewpoints.

Next: Running a meeting that aims for consensus.