December, 2009
Feature
Inspection News and Views from the American Society of Home Inspectors



Cerification: Benefits to ASHI's Lobbying Efforts

RANDALL PENCE

ASHI has taken decisive action to establish an ASHI certification process for home inspectors.

Certification can generate a wide range of benefits, including with respect to ASHI’s government affairs operations and its lobbying efforts to defend the interests of the ASHI membership in U.S. law.

How the government incorporates certifications in policy

In order for associations to master the full use of certifications as a means for promoting quality in products and services, it is important to grasp how and why government institutions, like Congress and the agencies of the U.S. executive branch, incorporate certifications in government policy.

When the government creates a new requirement, a mandate, a benefit, the government generally provides some description of a target, or benchmark, to meet.

Benchmarks take many forms, but one class of benchmark may be expressed in the form of a certification, a standard of quality to meet.

Without some manner of benchmark, there would be no extrinsic, objective means by which to measure whether or not someone meets his or her required obligation or would qualify for the benefit in question.

Government-specific standards of the past


Prior to the early 1990s, the federal government had a history of developing government-specific quality standards, specifications and other requirements.

A host of government-specific standards and unique specifications existed parallel to standards that prevailed for the rest of the economy in the private sector. Government and private-sector requirements might be similar in many respects, but in the end, anyone who wanted to do business with or comply with government often needed to remain up-to-date with and comport to standards that applied only to government and no one else.

Clearly, this caused inefficiencies and other problems for both individuals and businesses interfacing with government. This began to change in the mid-1990s as a consequence of the Republican takeover of the U.S. House of Representatives. One of the most lasting consequences of the reforms instituted at that time was a wholesale reform of government procurement policy.

“Off-the-shelf” certifications gain support

Congress created a preference against government-unique standards and specifications. In the alternative, Congress altered procurement policy to favor “off- the-shelf” private sector standards and establish preferences for non-government-specific specifications.

The purpose of these reforms was to make it easier to do business with the government, increase efficiency and lower the procurement costs to the taxpayers by eliminating high-cost products and services of use only by government and avoid parallel, dupli-cative procurement schemes.

This effort has been popular and successful. Even the federal agencies have come to embrace “off-the-shelf” because it has reduced their costs and made procurement easier. Further, both Congress and the agencies have virtually eliminated the criticism for unpopular government standards and requirements developed under their watch because, in most cases, they have adopted private standards where it is feasible to do so.

Private sector certifications proliferate

With government rolling back its activity writing standards and certifications, and instead recognizing and using private-sector standards, there has been a proliferation of private-sector standards/certification development.

With regard to standards, certifications, guidelines, “Best Practices” documents and more, federal personnel are often invited by the standards entities to participate. Government has a voice in standards and certification development, but without the burden of owning the standard, answering for it, paying for it. The public-sector certifications and standards may not be precisely what agencies would write in every case, but they are close enough. Standard-setting bodies want the support, participation and endorsement of the federal government and the resulting standards usually reflect government input.

There is another way to think of certifications, a way that closely reflects the value of certifications in lobbying practice and their impact on government personnel.

Government places high value on third-party validation

Government places high value on third-party validation in nearly every activity of government as a means to establish credibility and authority, to mitigate perceptions of controversy and to demonstrate that one’s lobbying position comports with some manner of widely accepted external yardstick. This is especially true when the yardstick is either generated by an independent third party or is developed in concert with, or endorsed by, unbiased third parties.

Every message that is conveyed to Congress and the federal agencies is bolstered in some way if one can add the phrase “this also meets the ABC Certification” or “this comports to the XYZ Standard.”

Thus, third-party validation allows the government to cite authoritative outside sources to provide some independent judgment establishing the veracity, substantiation, quality, etc.

In short, third-party validation, as evidenced in this discussion by certification, can be a powerful lobbying tool. It can be used to bolster the persuasiveness of lobbying arguments, establish credibility and demonstrate broad-consensus support and acceptance. Third-party validation and certification may be a principal means for overcoming the question of whether the position of an association should be discounted, in large part due to the internal interests of the group.

In sum, the availability of third-party validation in the form of certification can be a powerful wrench to keep in one’s lobbying toolbox.

Going one step further


In the best of circumstances, the utility of certification may go one step further.

In some cases involving widely recognized standards and certifications, Congress and the federal agencies are writing private-sector standards into federal law. In many cases, Congress and the federal agencies make use of legislative and regulatory “shorthand” by adopting very widely accepted consensus private-sector standards.

A current example of government making heavy use of standards not created by government is the LEED certification program, created by the U.S. Green Building Council. LEED is referenced in nearly all legislation mandating or encouraging energy-efficient, environmentally sound construction. LEED has become the de facto government standard that policy makers are using for benchmarks in green building construction.

There are many other examples of similar third-party certification products and services that have become benchmarks of choice considered so ubiquitous that the standards are incorporated into legislation.

Clearly, it would take some time and wide acceptance of a new certification for government to adopt it as a benchmark in public policy. But it is equally clear that government has an affinity, and a need, for widely accepted benchmark systems, most of which will arise in the private sector. This is a strong trend, with no sign of abating.

Prompting government awareness

ASHI’s actions on certification are a clear indicator of the association’s commitment to the leadership activity within the home inspector profession. It is the sort of leadership that government personnel recognize and respond to — with some prompting from ASHI’s lobbying efforts on behalf of the membership.