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On a slippery slope?

Changes to standards are on the way, says Water NZ chief executive John Pfahlert. In the coming months it is expected the government will pass the Standards and Accreditation Bill, disestablishing Standards New Zealand as the body responsible for the development and maintenance of standards.

Established following the Napier earthquake of 1931, Standards New Zealand was originally created to ensure a similar loss of life did not occur again from such widespread destruction of buildings. Over the years some 650 building-related standards were developed. Today the Standards New Zealand catalogue contains some 2500 standards covering a wide range of topics from building to health to water – 82 percent of which are joint standards with Australia.

The bill will transfer standards development obligations to a new independent statutory board and statutory officer within the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE). Numerous submissions to government during the three years this bill has been developed have expressed concern about the proposed arrangements.

There is unease within the wider building and engineering industry in New Zealand that locating standards development within a government department comes with certain risks.

Historically, standards have been developed in an independent, impartial environment where the resulting intellectual property (the standard) was not subject to regulatory capture or for the primary use of government.

Going forward will we have the assurance that standards will be developed in such a manner? The Standards Approval Board to be established will be able to introduce standards development processes that suit its own needs. There can be no assurance that there will be openness and access for all stakeholder groups with an interest in the subject being discussed, since the board also decides who goes on standards committees.

I’d be the first to acknowledge that there are failings with the current standards development process both here and overseas. Standards can be time-consuming to produce and can reflect a “lowest common denominator” outcome where the document produced reflects only what the parties to the process could agree upon, not necessarily best practice.

Funding shortages have been an ongoing problem for Standards New Zealand and its counterpart organisation in Australia. While the New Zealand government has funded the review and development of some standards under the current arrangements, there is little likelihood that bringing the process in house will result in a higher level of investment.

The current catalogue will inevitably be drastically reduced in size, or similar documents developed in house by officials as “compliance documents” which can be referenced in the Building Code without the requirement for the rigour of the standards development process.

As the International Standards Organisation said in its submission on the above bill: “Incorporating standards development activity carried out by the Standards Council into MBIE is not a solution in itself to the problem facing standards development in New Zealand. That problem is funding for relevant standards activities in a small economy and having government acknowledge and financially support the benefit such activity brings to the whole economy and the citizens of the country.”

Successive governments over the past 20 years have refused to adequately recognise the public good benefit of standards to the economy. That isn’t likely to change. New Zealand will increasingly be a standards taker from Australia. Voluntary trade groups do not routinely have the resources to send people to international meetings of standards bodies, however deserving the topic up for debate.

The process of developing standards inevitably leaves some around the table dissatisfied that they weren’t listened to, or that insufficient weight was given to their point of view. There have been gripes about the time it takes, and, always, complaints that because of the public good nature of these documents – that government should be playing a greater role.

The bill is crafted in a way which could lead to better outcomes at a lower cost. Time will tell whether this review was simply a cost-saving measure. A couple of useful metrics to gauge success might be how many standards remain on the standards catalogue in 10 years’ time, and how many of the existing joint standards with Australia have disappeared.

This article was first published in the April 2015 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.

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