If you woke up and saw the sun, then you know it’s another day. And that means ISO certification bodies are trying to figure out new ways to get out of honoring their responsibilities and being scumbags. I’d say this next one is surprising, but you already know better; this is just more of the same.
There’s a move afoot to empower certification bodies (CBs) with the right to toss out any formal complaint based on the CB’s perception of “motive” of the person submitting it. Specifically, if a CB “senses” that a complaint may have been filed by a competitor, critic, or anyone they deem undesirable, they want the ability to delete it without any action whatsoever.
For now, this effort is being led internally among a handful of (well-known) CBs, and doesn’t have any official support in ISO accreditation procedures. Instead, ISO 17021-1 says, clearly:
9.8.3 Upon receipt of a complaint, the certification body shall confirm whether the complaint relates to certification activities that it is responsible for and, if so, shall deal with it. If the complaint relates to a certified client, then examination of the complaint shall consider the effectiveness of the certified management system.
There’s a lot more language about complaints in ISO 17021, but you get the picture. It sounds pretty cut-and-dry. And it’s been this way since before ISO 17021-1 existed. Prior to that, the rules for CBs were found in ISO Guide 62:1996, and were nearly identical.
CBs, meanwhile, like to claim they have high levels of customer satisfaction by saying they enjoy low levels of customer complaints. This is problematic for two reasons: first, the claim is entirely unverifiable since CBs don’t publish complaints or complaint-related data. Second, the complaints and appeals processing requirements intentionally make filing a complaint nearly impossible, since they can take years to resolve.
But with the advent of the internet, and sites like Oxebridge, it’s harder for CBs to hide complaints when the complainant (like Oxebridge) publishes them right when they are filed. So new CB dirtbag tactics are clearly needed.
Dirtbag Graeme Drake at the Asia Pacific Accreditation Cooperation (APAC) has tried to get in front of this, by creating a ridiculous procedure that gives APAC (and himself) power to toss out a complaint if he deems the complainant is “vexatious.” Such a thing isn’t allowed by any ISO or IAF rule, but Drake did it anyway. So far, he doesn’t seem to have invoked the procedure, however, and doing so would likely land him in court.
It’s not clear if Drake’s move inspired the CBs to follow suit, or if they are running their own plays here, but some are trying to make similar arguments by claiming they can discard a complaint if the complainant’s “motive” is — to them, anyway — suspect. They then point to ISO 17021 which says (emphasis added):
9.8.6 The complaints-handling process shall include at least the following … (a) an outline of the process for receiving, validating, investigating the complaint, and for deciding what actions need to be taken in response to it…
In that standard’s section on accreditation principles, it details one called “Responsiveness to Complaints” which — not at all ironically — the CBs are claiming allows them to not be responsive to complaints. This, they say, is because ISO 17021 says (emphasis added):
Parties that rely on certification expect to have complaints investigated and, if these are found to be valid, should have confidence that these complaints will be appropriately addressed and that a reasonable effort will be made by the certification body to resolve them.
The word “valid,” the CBs say, allows them to apply a wholly subjective smell test of complaints, and toss out any they deem “invalid” for any reason whatsoever. To date, a few Indian CBs have tried the trick, without much success, in responding to Oxebridge complaints. They argued that they were not required to respond because they claimed (in defiance of facts) that I was somehow working for a competitor or, more ludicrously, that I was a competitor. They didn’t bother to check that Oxebridge isn’t a certification body. Eventually, those complaints were escalated to their accreditation bodies, and the CBs were forced to address them anyway.
But now I see this being talked about at CBs in the US and Europe, by names you’d recognize. It’s no longer limited to Indian CBs that no one has ever heard of.
Because the idea of a “motive” behind a complaint being a condition for processing it isn’t included in any of the accreditation standards, the CBs might face an uphill battle. Maybe. But if they try to invoke it, and the complaint would get escalated to their associated Accreditation Body (AB); then, it is likely the AB will allow the complaint to be tossed, since the CB pays the AB. So this “motive” argument would become a de facto rule, regardless of whether it’s allowed in the accreditation rules.
And, of course, the CBs can make up any “motive” they want, since there’s no requirement for them to prove it. Much as Drake’s “vexatious complainant” procedure at APAC does.
Until the IAF is disbanded and national governments take over the enforcement of accreditation rules on the scheme, we can expect these sorts of shenanigans to continue, and the validity of ISO certificates to continue to be treated with suspicion and distrust.
About Christopher Paris
Christopher Paris is the founder and VP Operations of Oxebridge. He has over 30 years' experience implementing ISO 9001 and AS9100 systems, and is a vocal advocate for the development and use of standards from the point of view of actual users. He is the author of Surviving ISO 9001 and Surviving AS9100. He reviews wines for the irreverent wine blog, Winepisser.