Publisher’s Note: This paper is an extract from a larger paper called An Essential Paradigm for IT Standards Success that can be found at the
Whitemarsh Information Systems web-site under the SQL-Standards section located at www.wiscorp.com.
The Role of Government in IT Standards
The role of government in information technology standards is in four parts:
- Laws enacted by Congress
- Executive Branch Department Programs
- Effective Oversight by Independent Technology Groups or Boards
- Conformance Test Development and Product Certification
Laws Enacted by Congress
Congress, through the “Books Bill” and recently through legislation passed during the 104th Congress (104-106 and 104-113) designated NIST as the lead agency within the United States
Federal Government for standards and information technology improvements. [OMB119_95], [Congress_95]. All in all, Congress designated NIST as the lead agency to:
- Develop and promote interoperability policies and procedures across all government agencies,
- Represent Government (at Federal, State, and local levels) to National and International voluntary standards organizations,
- Support voluntary standards conforming, tested and certified product procurements.
Executive Branch Department Programs
In response to laws passed by Congress over the years, the United States Department of Commerce has long designated the NIST as the lead agency for information technology standards. Until late
1995, NIST’s accomplishments were very significant. Between the mid 1960s through the mid 1990s, the quantity and positive impact of NIST’s studies, reports, workshops and direct
participation by staff has been great. A U.S. Government study performed by NIST in 1995 showed that due to the NIST created DBMS FIPS (Federal Information Processing Standards) there was an
average $30 Million in annual procurement savings alone to Federal agencies because of increased competitive procurements. [Computer World_9602], [TASC_95]. These savings flowed directly to Federal
agencies as they are allowed to only purchase standards conforming and conformance tested DBMS products.
If a new and/or small vendor attempts to sell a DBMS to a federal agency, the agency, in its careful exercise of public trust, must determine if it can safely expend the many thousands of times the
cost of the DBMS software in database application program and data development. With conformance tests and conformance test certified products, the agency can proceed safely because the DBMS
applications, which are the real cost item can be portable. They can be portable when the database applications are defined by and then access through ANSI standard languages. If the database that
is built is filled with data stored there through ANSI/SQL standard languages, then its data can both exported and then re-imported into databases supported by a competing vendor’s SQL DBMS
Conformance tests and conformance test certified products are a significant contributor to fulfilling the requirements of a 1996 public law which requires both real decreasing costs and also
increasing cost effectiveness in government information technology programs [Congress_96].
An Executive Order [President_96] specifically cited NIST as lead agency for developing standards and guidelines pertaining to Federal Information systems in support of the Government Information
Technology Services Board that is to develop innovative technologies, standards, and practices among agencies and State and local governments and the private sector.
Effective Oversight by Independent Technology Groups or Boards
The National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences was established through public law to provide independent assessment of Executive agency the performance. These boards of
assessment create reports and present their findings to Congress. In the case of information technology standards there is a special NIST Technical Panel. This NRC panel, according to interviews
with its members regularly receives materials from NIST program managers and then meets with NIST at lease twice per year.
Once a year the NRC produces an assessment report that is sent to Congress. The chair of the assessment board then testifies to congress and answers questions congress may have. The independence of
the NRC boards is critical. According to the NRC Chairman, who is also the President of the National Academy of Sciences, Mr. Bruce Alberts, these boards must be “able to conduct our work
apart from political pressures.” Mr. Alberts then states in his letter that “Our independence is precious to us to [be able to] provide the most objective science advise possible for
the good of the nation.” [Alberts_97].
The role of the NRC is to conduct the high quality, comprehensive yet detailed and independent programmatic oversight and review necessary to ensure Congress that the pursued information technology
standards are those that are the most efficient, effective, and with the greatest payoff.
Conformance Test Development and Product Certification
During the mid 1980s through the mid 1990s, the U.S. Government expended considerable sums of monies (about $600,000 per year) to ensure that Federal agencies were procuring standards conforming
products. The practical effect of that procurement rule was to open the procurement process to all those who could “prove” that they conformed to the standard. Because of the increased
competition, quality and features rose, and prices fell.
Benefits to Federal agencies in areas of data standardization, standard data definition, data exchange, common computer program development, common staff training, and the like were incalculable.