Can ISO, in its current form, be an organization for societal standards?

This site discusses the general question whether ISO, once founded for technical standards, is an organization also for societal or society related standards which are also often subsumed under “public policy issues”. It seems obvious that experiences made with the ISO 26000 project can help contributing to answer this question.


A. The general question
1. Introduction
2. Analysis of stakeholder representation in the ISO 26000 project
3. Conclusion

B. An ISO 26000 sales estimation

C. Who are the experts and who will finally approve the guidance standard?


A. The general question

1. Introduction

ISO TCs (Technical Committees) are composed by “national delegTMB + substructureations”. ISO member bodies run so-called “mirror committees”; they decide on who is entrusted to be “their” national “delegate” to the ISO TC. ISO TCs report to the ISO TMB (Technical Management Board) who is responsible for all technical work, i.e. all work of the Technical Committees.

ISO TCs may have SCs (Subcommittees) and SCs may have WGs (Working Groups). A TC may have only WGs and no SC.

ISO/TMB/WGSR is formally a WG but since it reports directly to the TMB, it functions like, and has the power of, a TC.

Key of this system and the principle of “national delegation” is that both at the national and the international level it is assumed that “all parties concerned” participate in standardization work.

The ISO 26000 project deviates from this rule by an innovative process: the WGSR is composed by stakeholders, not by national delegations. The rationale for this “direct” stakeholder participation was that it may better reflect needs of society, provided all ISO active member bodies (so-called “P members”, participating members, countries involved) are represented by all national stakeholder groups.

Therefore it seemed worthwhile to analyse the factual stakeholder composition of WGSR.

2. Analysis of stakeholder representation in the ISO 26000 project

Fully acknowledging repeated efforts of ISO Central Secretariat and the WG SR leadership to encourage participating ISO member bodies (P-members in WG SR) to ensure full and proper representation both in mirror committees and in their “delegations”, one can’t expect a 100% representation of all stakeholder groups in all delegations; nevertheless the real achievements seem to be interesting. The efforts of ISO member bodies to complete their stakeholder representation are also fully acknowledged.

This analysis is not intended to criticize anyone or anything; it just states observed facts; they are of course in line with ISO practice.

The early November 2009 status of stakeholder group representation is the following:

Industry Govern-ment Consumer Labor NGO SSRO Full delegation
1 Argentina 1
1 Armenia 1 1 1
1 Australia 1
1 Austria 1
1 Azerbaijan 1 1
1 Bahrain 1
1 Bangladesh 1
1 Barbados 1 1 1 1 1
1 Belarus 1 1 1
1 Belgium 1
1 Brazil 1
1 Bulgaria 1 1
1 Cameroun 1 1 1 1 1
1 Canada 1
1 Chile 1
1 China 1
1 Colombia 1
1 Costa Rica 1
1 Côte d´Ivoire 1
1 Cuba 1 1 1 1
1 Czech Republic 1 1 1 1 1
1 Denmark 1
1 Ecuador 1
1 Egypt 1
1 Fiji 1 1 1 1 1
1 Finland 1
1 France 1
1 Germany 1
1 Ghana (unclear) 1 1 1 1 1 1
1 Greece 1 1 1
1 India 1
1 Indonesia 1
1 Iran 1 1 1
1 Ireland 1 1 1 1
1 Israel 1 1 1
1 Italy 1
1 Jamaica 1 1 1 1
1 Japan 1
1 Jordan 1 1 1 1
1 Kazakhstan 1 1 1 1 1
1 Kenya 1
1 Korea 1
1 Lebanon 1 1 1 1 1
1 Libya 1 1 1 1 1
1 Malaysia 1
1 Mongolia 1 1 1
1 Morocco 1
1 Mauritius (unclear) 1 1 1 1 1 1
1 Mexico 1
1 The Netherlands 1
1 Nigeria 1
1 Norway 1 1
1 Oman 1 1 1 1 1
1 Panama 1
1 Peru 1 1
1 Philippines 1 1 1 1
1 Poland 1 1 1 1
1 Portugal 1
1 Qatar 1 1 1
1 Romania 1
1 Russia 1 1
1 Saint Lucia 1 1
1 Saudi Arabia 1 1
1 Serbia 1 1 1 1
1 Singapore 1
1 South Africa 1
1 Spain 1
1 Sweden 1
1 Switzerland 1 1
1 Syria 1 1 1
1 Thailand 1
1 Trinidad Tobago 1
1 Turkey 1 1 1 1 1
1 Ukraine 1
1 U. A. Emirates 1
1 United Kingdom 1
1 Uruguay 1 1
1 USA 1
1 Venezuela 1 1
1 Vietnam 1 1 1 1
80 19 14 31 42 24 20
Missing 23,75 17,50 38,75 52,50 30,00 25,00 %
stakeholder groups Industry Govern-ment Consumer Labor NGO SSRO


26 countries have all stakeholder groups on their delegation to WGSR
26 out of 80 is 32,50 % complete delegations
or the other way round: 67,50 % of delegations are incomplete

This Excel sheet can be downloaded.

3. Subsequent deliberations and conclusion

If one followed the endeavors to get stakeholder representation improved one can note that it is too bad that more improvement couldn’t be achieved. The main reason is that ISO member bodies act in their sovereignty and neither the WG SR nor ISO as the parent organization have more influence. Again acknowledging all best endeavors of ISO member bodies, and recognizing that the ISO 26000 project is the first “big” ISO project in the area of societal standardization, the following thoughts occur:

  • The ISO system was created, and works fine, for technical standards. Its suitability for societal standards can be questioned because societies EXIST everywhere and practice “their standards”, technologies don’t exist everywhere but can be brought across via standards
  • Technical standards can emerge under scattered representation of stakeholders:
    when the standards are ready, the participating countries normally adopt them because they have agreed on their content, and non-participating countries can adopt them because the standards fill a vacuum in their portfolio
  • Societal standards seem to be totally different:
    societies in general want to preserve their attitudes, customs, culture etc., say their identity
    so, societal standards generally face acceptance problems because they don’t meet a vacuum in countries where they should be adopted; and if they emerge from a group with scattered stakeholder representation, the problem of their acceptance is naturally even bigger.

That said and observing the WG SR as a group of scattered stakeholder representation it can be stated, as part of the experiences with this project, that

  • Societal aspects are not well represented in WG SR
  • The ISO system of today (November 2009) is not well prepared for societal standards, and in consequence
  • The ISO 26000 guidance standard may face serious acceptance problems.
What can be concluded?

In order to legitimately address societal (i.e. political) issues, ISO would need to do nothing less than transform itself into a political institution similar to the UN.

A lesson from the WG SR process is that ISO does not have the suitable structure or capacity to address societal issues and should not attempt to do so again unless it develops the political structures and mandates that would allow it to do so legitimately. That would mean identifying the society-relevant constituents (which would be far broader than ISO member bodies) and bring those constituents together to write a new constitution for the organization.

Short of that, any ISO move into societal or political issues will likely be met with down turning criticism from existing organizations that are already truly representative.

B. An ISO 26000 sales estimation


It seemed interesting to try an estimation of the possible sales figures and resulting revenues. This approach is a model, using parameters partly based on estimations. Whoever has a better guess is invited to make it known.

  • The number of potential buyers/users is deducted from the size of a country’s population; the deduction takes economic, political and cultural aspects into account
  • Column H “organization factor” reads, e.g. for Afghanistan: every 7000 inhabitants equal 1 organization that buys the ISO 26000
  • Column I “number of organizations” results from the number of inhabitants divided by the “organization factor”
  • Column J “buy-in factor in%” indicates the degree of accepted use by the countries’ organizations given in column I
  • Column K: the resulting number of users is supposed to buy the ISO 26000
  • The ISO 26000 price used in this model is at 204,10 Euros, see where the DIS price is mentioned; the final standard price is assumed to be the same.

The estimates in columns H and J are a “low level guess” and so is the result in column K. The estimation assumes that by far not all SMOs and micro organizations buy the guidance standard.

These figures represent also the potential certification market in case the ISO 26000 is misused for certification.

The key result, for the first 3 to 5 years, is that ISO 26000 will create a

  • 1 billion Euro sales business, and
  • 46 billion Euro certification business in case that only 50% of users misuse it for this purpose (which is explicitly excluded in the document’s scope!)

There may be other approaches and they may lead to other results; when made available, a comparison will be interesting.

The full Excel sheet can be downloaded here and has the following structure:

Explanation of approach: see comment on this box by Guido Guertler, ICC Observer, 2010-01 See the com-ments in this line for under- standing the columns Develo ping country devel oped Popu lation in millions GDP in billion US$ Organi sation factor Number of Organi sations buy-in factor in % initial sales estimation of the ISO 26000 document
Afghanistan ANSA Correspondent member 1   28,15 21,388 7000 4021 10 402
Albania DPS Correspondent member 1   3,17 21,864 1200 2642 50 1321
Algeria IANOR Member body 1   34,895 233,479 1250 27916 35 9771
Angola IANORQ Correspondent member 1   18,498 105,078 1260 14681 55 8075

Zimbabwe, as last country on the list
Please see the summary lines etc. at the end of the excel sheet, lines 170 onwards.

C. Who are the experts and who will finally approve the guidance standard?

Who are the ISO SR experts and why is this important to know?
Because the deliverable for developing guidance on SR is a “standard.”

In the case of ISO technical standards there is no question that the technical standard have been developed by technical experts in technical committees of ISO. These technical experts are engineers, scientist whose expertise is backed up by there certified education and their performance in these fields. There remains a legitimate question about the expertise of the ISO SR-Experts in Social Responsibility.

Who are the ISO SR experts? The answer to the future users of this standard is found in its foreword:

“This international standard was developed using a multi-stakeholder approach involving “experts” from more than 90 countries and 40 international or broadly based regional organizations “involved in different aspects of social responsibility.”

By this statement just about anyone can call himself an SR expert.

Later in the foreword ISO includes a disclaimer stating: “Although efforts were made to ensure the broad and representative participation of all stakeholder groups, a full and equitable balance of stakeholder was constraint by various factors.’

Users, of product and services, rely on the expertise that went into the development of a product or the expertise of the person or organization that renders a service. For instance if you have a medical need you go to a doctor, because of his certified expertise, you would not rely on medical advise from other less competent sources.

And here is the problem with ISO 26000; of the 400+ experts that developed the standard hardly any one has the credentials or the certification to call himself a “SR Expert”.

The majority of the experts, selected by the NSB’s (National Standards Bodies, i.e. “ISO member bodies”, and sent to the ISO TMB Working Group have a technical background that this is not surprising since the members of NSB’s are technical standards individuals or organizations. Their expertise lies in the technical fields and in the development processes of ISO.

Throughout the development process one was able to observe that only a limited number of individuals have captured the development process and more or less have been responsible to its present content. Not surprisingly, real SR experts, like the Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General for Business and Human Rights, Professor Ruggie, have found many faults in this draft standard.

So the question must be asked “Where are the real SR Experts from Religious Organizations, Medical Professions, Cultural Professions, and Sociologists etc”. in this ISO WG of SR experts.

They are not there, because the solicitation to work on this ISO SR guidance did go to the NSB’s of this world, NSB’s are the homes of experts in technical matters, not in societal matters like Social Responsibility.

Who approves the final work of this development effort and why is this important to know? Because the users need to know who are the “experts” that approve the work of the “SR experts” that developed guidance on SR.

The approval for this standard comes from the member bodies of ISO, the National Standard Bodies participating in the development work (P-members) and the other ISO member bodies having voting rights.

Again, one has to question the process that claims that the NSB selected SR-Experts have reached consensus on this development work declaring it ready to be called a FDIS (Final Draft International Standard). A survey of the targeted users of this standard, the SME’s (small and medium enterprises) of this world, called for by the participating SME representatives, was never approved by the WG or by ISO TMB.

There is yet another problem with ISO having deviated from its core business of providing a venue for the development of technical standards. ISO has cast its net for the users of its SR-Guidance standard very wide and states that the standard “is useful to all types of organizations.”

A quick search on the Internet will show that Social Responsibility research has been focused on “Corporate Social Responsibility”, addressing only one of the 6 stakeholder groups, industry, of the ISO WG on SR. And accordingly the standard content has a strong focus on CSR, and reference to guidance for the other 5 stakeholder groups is basically missing.

Rolf Schneider, US industry expert to WG SR, January 2010

To download this contribution as a Word document, click here.

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