Quality Infrastructure fulfils sovereign tasks
The Quality Infrastructure is organised at the national level. Therefore, we speak of a National Quality System (NQS) or National Quality Infrastructure (NQI). Most countries in the world today have a National Metrology Institute (NMI), a National Standards Institute (NSI) and a National Accreditation Body (NAB). Each of these institutions requires a legal framework because they act in the public interest. In some cases, the Quality Infrastructure institutions even assume sovereign tasks.
The National Metrology Institute is responsible for national uniform and internationally comparable measurements. Through its participation in the Meter Convention, the NMI ensures that national measurements are traceable to the International System (SI) of units. In this way, all NMIs lay a foundation for enabling international trade.
Unlike industrial metrology, legal metrology is a sovereign task. Wherever the State wants to protect the safety and health of its citizens or the environment, companies and public institutions can be obliged to indicate legal units of measurement.
The Standardisation work is primary a non-governmental activity in which interested groups agree on technical specifications. Standards are voluntary or only binding private agreements. The State uses standards as a technical basis in legislation, regulation and market surveillance. For this reason, the State obliges the National Standards Institutes to take the public interest into account in their standardisation work.
The same applies to the National Accreditation Body, which performs sovereign tasks in the area of public protection interest, for example, when laws and technical regulations stipulate that conformity assessment (laboratory tests, inspections or certification) should be carried out by independent and competent bodies. When taking over public conformity assessment functions, the National Accreditation Body needs to be recognised by the National Government.
Autonomy and impartiality of the Quality Infrastructure
Irrespective of the support of government activities, the fundamental Quality Infrastructure institutions have to be technically competent, impartial and independent. Only in this way, the institutions of the Quality Infrastructure establish themselves as competent service providers for the private sector and become enablers of free trade. Therefore, the legislator must balance state interests and economic freedom when creating the legal framework.
A comparison of the legal framework of Quality Infrastructure in the various countries reveals considerable differences. These result from different national cultures and the histories of the respective countries. Although the Metrology Institute is usually a public institution, the National Standard and Accreditation Institutes are often private, non-profit institutions to which the state delegates certain sovereign activities.
National Quality Law
In many leading industrial countries, the National Quality System has grown over many decades without an overarching legal framework. In contrast, at the end of the 20th century, some were developing and emerging countries – particularly in Latin America – decided to reorganise their Quality Infrastructure using a law. One example is Law No. 8279 of the year 2002 for the National Quality System in Costa Rica.
In the 1990s, Costa Rica opened up increasingly and signed various trade agreements which led to the diversification of exports. During this time, the export basket changed from traditional agricultural products (coffee and bananas) to medium and high-tech industries (semiconductors, medical devises and aerospace-industry) and services (information and communication technology). A symbol of this structural change was 1996 when Intel Corporation announced its decision to establish a factory to assemble and test microprocessors (ATM) in Costa Rica (Monge González 2017).
The new economic model required a robust, articulated and modern Quality Infrastructure. In May 2002, the government promulgated Law No. 8279 on the National Quality System (SNC) to create a framework for the promotion of quality and its demonstration, to promote the competitiveness of national companies, the protection of consumers and the economic and commercial development of the country.
The essential components of the National Quality System are the National Metrology Institute (LACOMET), the Standards Institute (INTECO), and the new accreditation body (ECA) and the Coordination Body for Technical Regulations (ORT) created in this context. The Law obliges public entities to use only accredited Conformity Assessment Bodies (CAB) to promote the Accreditation Service.
Figure: National Quality System of Costa Rica
The Law establishes a National Council for Quality (CONAC) which responsible for giving strategic guidance to the National Quality System. The members of CONAC are ministries, the private sector, representatives of the four pillars and the Academy. One central aim of the CONAC is to strive for greater integration and coordination between components of the National Quality System.
The Costa Rican Quality Law has a good reputation in the region. But the example of Costa Rica also shows that a robust legal framework alone is not enough to establish a quality culture in a country.
An evaluation of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) states “…that the National Quality System lacks the appropriate institutionality and funding to comply with the provisions of the Law. In general terms, the National Quality Council (CONAC) has not been able to promote a culture of quality in the country efficiently, and there are still problems of coordination of the National Quality System. The institutions operate under different rules, specifically in the area of financing, which reduces the efficiency of the National Quality System as a whole and each of its member institutions” (Monge González 2016).
The evaluators conclude: “The Costa Rican authorities still have an important task ahead of them to develop and consolidate an efficient National System for Quality. To this end, it is necessary to define a roadmap with concrete and responsible actions to correct each of the deficiencies…” (Monge González 2016) of the National Quality System in Costa Rica.
National quality laws are an attractive instrument for countries that are just beginning to develop a Quality Infrastructure, or that want to realign an existing system to make it more efficient and effective. There is one legal umbrella which integrates accreditation, standardisation and metrology. The advantage of such legislation is clarity, which contributes to the coherence of the overall system.
However, good quality legislation should be limited to identify the key Quality Infrastructure institutions and set a general framework. Competencies and steering mechanisms should be clearly defined, and funding to be viable. Broad participation of stakeholders from the private sector, consumer protection organisations and the scientific community should be ensured. At the same time, the framework should be limited to define the essential services and should not unnecessarily restrict the innovative power of the system.
Our colleague, Ramón Madriñán Rivera, a lawyer and international Quality Infrastructure expert from Colombia, drew our attention to the fact that a Quality Law becomes a better tool when derived from a Quality Policy. Accordingly, Quality Policy provides the legislator with the necessary guidance, so that the legal framework simultaneously follows the trade and protection interests of a country.
 Monge González, R., et al. (2016). El Sistema Nacional para la Calidad como bien público para la competitividad en Costa Rica (The National System for Quality as a public good for competitiveness in Costa Rica). Washington DC, Interamerican Development Bank IDB.
 Monge-González, R. (2017). Ascendiendo en la Cadena Global de Valor: El caso de Intel Costa Rica (Moving Up the Global Value Chain: The Case of Intel Costa Rica). Lima/ Peru, OIT, Oficina Regional para América Latina y el Caribe.
Feature photo by Giammarco Boscaro on Unsplash