The Process of Setting Standards

A grasp of the standards-setting process is invaluable for day-to-day work.


For the consulting-specifying engineer, a grasp of the standards-setting process is invaluable for his/her day-to-day work, for personal career growth and to the bottom lines of the companies that employ CSEs. Today’s blog, and the next two, will treat each of these three subjects individually.

Where do standards begin? Typically, engineers who implement technology encounter hurdles to the interoperability of equipment in the form of physical or software compatibility. Or they may run into a gap in established processes for how certain actions should be taken. Or, in the implementation of an established standard, they may find that an issue has been left unaddressed. The list is long on how ideas for standards are generated.

The IEEE encompasses several dozen technical societies and groups, each of which has an interest in creating standards pertinent to its focus. The individuals or parties interested in initiating a standard form a working group to bring the matter to the attention of one of these technical societies. The latter, if interested, serves as the Sponsor of the activity, and then forwards the matter to the IEEE-Standards Association’s (IEEE-SA) New Standards Committee (NesCom) in the form of a project authorization request or PAR.

The members of the NesCom will review the PAR to ensure proper procedural matters have been followed and that the originating group has offered a workable plan to complete the standards process within a reasonable timeframe. Once the PAR is approved it returns to the working group, which then begins the task of creating the draft of the standard.

Some of the work may take place face-to-face, at various committee meetings of the Sponsor. A small number of individuals might get together and just write down their ideas. Because the working group is likely to comprise individuals who live and work in disparate locations, some work may get done via teleconference.

The IEEE-SA offers guidance on how a standard should be written. There are three different types of standards. One is called a “Guideline.” One is called a “Recommended Practice.” And the third is called a “Standard.” They differ in degrees of prescriptiveness as to what needs to be done.

A guideline, for example, is not mandatory. It just offers that there are a number of ways something can get done. A recommended practice recognizes multiple ways to do things, but suggests that one particular way is preferred. A standard is just that: thou shalt do it the prescribed way.

Though some guidelines become a recommended practice or a standard as more experience with it is gained, many guidelines remain as such for their entire lifecycle, because in fact there are multiple ways of doing things, multiple solutions to a problem.

Once a draft of the standard has been created, the document is ready for balloting. The working group creates a sponsor ballot pool composed of people who express interest and are registered with IEEE-SA as a potential balloter for the specific topic. The strength of the system is that the balloters are free to join in and comment on the work the group has done. Thus in the course of balloting the working group is exposed to different ideas, approaches, corrections and additions, all of which serve to strengthen the document. Essentially, this is the peer review process.

The IEEE is unique among standards development organizations (SDOs) in that it allows this completely open peer review. You don’t see this at the IEC (International Electrotechnical Commission), the ITU (International Telecommunication Union), NEMA (National Electrical Manufacturers Association), or any of the other SDOs.

Once sponsor ballot process (peer review) occurs, the working group must address every comment. And every commenter can see everyone else’s comments, an interactive process that may lead to further comments. Then the working group attempts to build consensus behind the updated draft, first among its own membership in the resolution of the comments, then among members of the ballot pool. This can involve hundreds and hundreds of interested parties across the IEEE’s global membership.

Thus there’s likely to be multiple rounds of balloting as comments continue and consensus is reached. On a technically complex issue, it’s not unheard of for a document to undergo five to ten “recirculations.”

The process obviously can be time-consuming, but that’s necessary to vet the standard and build consensus around it. Adherence to due process, broad consensus, transparency, balance and openness in standards development comprise a hallmark of the “OpenStand” principles (, which encapsulate a modern paradigm for global, open standards that is extendible broadly across technology spaces and industries. The OpenStand principles are proven in their ability to efficiently yield the kind of globally scoped standards that have the most significant impact in terms of creating global markets, fostering job creation and economic opportunity and yielding better products at more competitive prices.

In my next two blogs, I’ll explain how involvement in standards setting provides career growth for the individual CSE and how that, in turn, benefits the CSE’s company.

Sam Sciacca is an active senior member in the IEEE and the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) in the area of utility automation. He has more than 25 years of experience in the domestic and international electrical utility industries. Sciacca serves as the chair of two IEEE working groups that focus on cyber security for electric utilities: the Substations Working Group C1 (P1686) and the Power System Relay Committee Working Group H13 (PC37.240). Sciacca also is president of SCS Consulting.

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