by Peter Holtmann
What’s in a name? Accreditation. Certification. It’s all the same, right? Let’s consider this: I’m working with a new client, an association. It’s developing its own standard; it doesn’t speak our language. What am I saying? It comes down to two words that cause vexation every time they’re raised: “accreditation” and “certification.” Here are my observations:
My client is in a world apart from certification—the welfare of animals displayed at zoos and aquariums. It’s developing a positive welfare standard to ensure that the animals have a positive mental state as determined by four key welfare parameters. Many behaviors we deem positive may be personifications of our own mental state and may not translate to animals. So the key is provide other domains that can support a perception of positive mental state. The development process is quite complex because you can’t simply ask the animals about their mental states. (My reasons for including this background information will become clear as the story unfolds.)
In some countries where the association operates, there are regulations aplenty that help control aspects of animal management from enclosure size to health, safety, wellness, and other factors. In other countries, regulations exist but the framework to control regulation is underdeveloped and left to self-regulation or enforcement through penalties. In these markets, the regulators seek guidance from the association on how to create a framework for the standard. This is where the issue of language begins.
Accreditation is the act of gaining authority or authorization, or the act of empowering someone with license to use authority. (Yes, I have read numerous definitions before I condensed them down to this.)
So then, accreditation is granting of power? Theoretically, yes. So what effect does this have when you move outside of conformity assessment fields? If you Google “accreditation,” you will find any manner of accredited personnel—from mediators to distributors to solar panel installers. So what authority do they have? What powers are they enacting? Those are the questions that accreditation answers.
Certification is the confirmation of certain characteristics in an object, person, or organization. This confirmation is often, but not always, provided by some form of external review, education, assessment, or audit. If I search for “certified” personnel, I find systems engineers, auditors, trainers, and so on. We see no mention of powers or authorities being granted. We see no talk of systems independently offering outcomes without the annex of accreditation. Accreditation is a specific assessment of an organization’s process of certification.
The terms seem well crafted and scoped so that there should be no confusion, yet every day I’m in the field with clients I hear the terms used interchangeably. But there is a distinction and it is most apparent when we return to the case study I mentioned. So let’s consider the implications of these two terms against auditors, a regulatory role (an environmental compliance officer), and the association with its animal welfare standard.
Auditors of management systems work in the “voluntary” environment. This means that any ISO or country standard is not a mandatory requirement for doing business or trade. When an auditor performs a service on a site, it’s at the invitation of the organization and the outcomes are only pinned to compliance with the standard. The repercussions of non-compliance could result in removal of certification but will not inhibit trade or business necessarily. The management system auditor has no authority but carries a responsibility to enact assessment against a standard.
A compliance officer carries the authority to enter and inspect an organization against the requirements of a law or regulation. He or she has the authority to enforce noncompliances, typically resulting in some form of financial penalty. Compliance officers have authority and responsibility to enact a law. These personnel are accredited; they also can hold certification in a management system (e.g., environmental management system auditor).
Returning to our case study, we have an association building a voluntary standard and wishing to accredit organizations and personnel to assess that standard. Let’s look at the effect of this.
The standard would have no enforceable authority in most countries, and yet we have some examples where it is looking to be the default framework for enforcement of animal welfare. The personnel performing the assessments would have no authority to enact penalties but could make observations against the standard.
In this instance the intent of the association is juxtaposed against the requirements of the regulator. This puts an undue level of risk on the standard and on the individual to enact enforcement using a voluntary framework. Language, as it seems, has created an awareness of an authority not yet attained by the association, its standard, or its personnel.
It’s interesting to see these uses of terminology from industries wishing to enter into the conformity assessment space. The common uses of terminology often harken back to the education sector where the use of “accreditation” has an entirely different meaning or, if we look at how government job functions become deregulated, the terminology has carried through, yet the authority may no longer be there.
When we start to embrace new industries, roles, and governing bodies into our community, we should be preparing them with the fundamentals of conformity assessment language to ensure we all start the journey on the right foot together.
About the author
Peter Holtmann is president and CEO of Exemplar Global (formerly RABQSA International Inc.) and has more than 10 years of experience in the service and manufacturing industries. He received his bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of Western Sydney in Australia and has worked in industrial chemicals, surface products, environmental testing, pharmaceutical, and nutritional products. Holtmann has served on various international committees for the National Food Processors Association in the United States and on the Safe Quality Foods auditor certification review board.