Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 07/2012

America's Voluntary Standards System—A "Best Practice" Model for Innovation Policy?

Dieter Ernst

February 2012

East-West Center


For its proponents, America's voluntary standards system is a "best practice" model for innovation policy. Foreign observers however are concerned about possible drawbacks of a standards system that is largely driven by the private sector. There are doubts, especially in Europe and China, whether the American system can balance public and private interests in times of extraordinary national and global challenges to innovation. To assess the merits of these conflicting perceptions, the paper reviews the historical roots of the American voluntary standards system, examines its current defining characteristics, and highlights its strengths and weaknesses. On the positive side, a tradition of decentralized local self-government, has given voice to diverse stakeholders in innovation, avoiding the pitfalls of top-down government-centered standards systems. However, a lack of effective coordination of multiple stakeholder strategies tends to constrain effective and open standardization processes, especially in the management of essential patents and in the timely provision of interoperability standards. To correct these drawbacks of the American standards system, the government has an important role to play as an enabler, coordinator, and, if necessary, an enforcer of the rules of the game in order to prevent abuse of market power by companies with large accumulated patent portfolios. The paper documents the ups and downs of the Federal Government’s role in standardization, and examines current efforts to establish robust public-private standards development partnerships, focusing on the Smart Grid Interoperability project coordinated by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). In short, countries that seek to improve their standards systems should study the strengths and weaknesses of the American system. However, persistent differences in economic institutions, levels of development and growth models are bound to limit convergence to a US-Style market-led voluntary standards system.