This one was particularly satisfying, because not only did it follow an intended script nearly to the letter, it actually did so very much akin to the magician’s three-step trick pattern, made famous in the movie The Prestige. Even though the result was only that the hypocrisy and deception of the accreditation body (AB) community was laid bare for all to see, and we won’t get any actual improvements to the ISO scheme, I’m nevertheless snickering to myself about how easy it was to pull off.

The Pledge

Over on LinkedIn (of course), the AB community was feting the appointment of Elias Rafoul of Canada’s accreditation body, SCC, to his new role as Vice-Chair of the ISO Committee on Conformity Assessment, or CASCO. That group, you may recall, develops the ISO 17000 family of standards, most importantly including ISO 17021-1, the rules for certification bodies, and ISO 17011,¬† the rules for ABs themselves.

I’ve argued for decades this conflict of interest results in real-world problems that infect the entire ISO certification scheme, as it allows the CBs and ABs to dilute the rules to suit their business interests, at the expense of the trust and validity of accredited certifiations. For example, as I reported in 2015, the CBs objected to a prior ISO 17021 requirement to publish a list of their clients on their websites, to allow ISO certificates to be verified. Many CBs simply refused to do so, in open violation of the rule. Rather than be held accountable, the CBs and ABs colluded and removed the rule entirely from the 2015 edition of ISO 17021-1.

The CBs and ABs also colluded to have CASCO introduce a new concept called “flexible scopes” which would allow them to circumvent long-standing rules requiring AB scopes of accreditation to be accurate. This has had real-world consequences, as we see unfolding only last week with the huge scandal involving EGAC, the accreditation body of Egypt, which was caught allowing its logo to appear on at least 17 out-of-scope certificates.

So the role of ABs diluting the rules to suit themselves and their CB clients is well-documented, since it all happens in front of everyone.

Thus, the announcement of SCC’s Rafoul was met, by me, with disdain — of course. So I posted the following:

Accreditation bodies should NOT hold total control over the committee that writes the standards governing them. Without full stakeholder participation in CASCO, we cannot trust the outputs that come from it.

Because the rest of the thread was comprised of AB reps glad-handing each other over the appointment of one of their own to the Vice-Chair position, I knew someone would step into the trap. It only took a few hours.

The Turn

Thus, enter stage left Peter Unger, the former head of the accreditation body A2LA, former Chair of ILAC, and general ISO gadfly promoting the position of ABs over the needs of standards customers and end users. It was almost as if I picked a “mark” from the audience.

Unger decided he’d try to gaslight everybody, everywhere, all at once by making this bold claim:

ABs do not and never have had total control of CASCO. Leadership positions do not confer total control of any ISO committee.

This was almost too easy, and if it were a magic trick, the audience would have assumed my “mark” was actually a “plant,” working for me, while pretending to be an innocent audience member. This was not the case, of course.

Consider the outright ballsiness of Unger to claim, with a straight face, that ABs don’t control CASCO given the following facts:

  • Unger was himself the head of an AB when he held positions with ILAC, and signed the first memorandum of understanding between IAF, ISO and ILAC.
  • Unger gave official public presentations promoting CASCO, while invoking his AB credentials.
  • The post he was commenting on was about how a Canadian AB rep had just taken a role with CASCO.

In addition, Unger’s claims are debunked by the official ISO CASCO website itself. That site contains a formal list of all CASCO members (you can see that here), and it reveals that the membership is comprised of two groups of members, and two groups only:

  • National standards bodies (NSBs), each of which then oversees the national accreditation body for their home country. For example, ANSI is listed, and ANSI operates ANAB. Ditto for Canada’s SCC, and the majority of the bodies listed on the CASCO list.
  • Accreditation Bodies or Certification Bodies themselves. In this case, some NSBs are simultaneously the AB or CB of their country, without a middleman. For example, INACAL in Peru or BSI in the UK.

What’s missing? Anyone outside the CB/AB community, such as end users, the public, and representatives of key industries such as education, manufacturing, engineering, etc.

Mind you, Unger himself publicly proclaimed CASCO’s obligation to engage stakeholders, in a 2015 speech he gave promoting CASCO whil using his A2LA credentials.

So, you’d think he’d have agreed with me, rather than argue, since he was making the same points in his 2015 speech that I had been. the only difference was that Unger was just quoting the rules while ignoring the fact that CASCO was violating them. I was making a big ol’ fuss.

Which set up the trick’s “Turn” phase:

The Prestige

Now was time to reveal the trick to the audience, and expose Unger’s gaslighting. I didn’t think he’d fall for it, but I once again underestimated how arrogance and power can make folks, well… stupid. Unger walked into the trap, and if this was an actual Victorian-era magic show, the audience would have applauded.

Or demanded their money back, since the entire thing seemed so fake.

You see, after so many decades of this, I know how these guys are going to reply before they, themselves, do. They always walk away while suggesting critics get themselves on the committee to affect change, if they’re so dedicated to it. This is a great tactic because those in power know they will never have to deal with that risk, since they can prohibit participation by critics outright.

And that’s exactly what Unger did, although I did — admittedly — have to nudge him:

You can almost hear the gasp from the audience. Unger had just revealed the entire trick.

Remember, Unger had started this entire controversy by claiming, as fact, that “ABs do not and never have had total control of CASCO.” Within just a day of posting, Unger came around — full circle — and revealed that what he said was never fact at all, since to allow me to participate on CASCO, I’d have to get the permission of the US’ ANSI (which owns an AB) or Peru’s INACAL (which literally is an AB.)

Which allowed me to close the curtain with this parting shot:

So it now appears your statement that “ABs do not and never have had total control of CASCO” is false on its face, by your own admission. They control who gets to participate on the committee. That is the strongest form of control there is.

I’m not successful very often in this game, so pardon me if I take a long, melodramatically slow bow for this one.

The After Party

So, at the risk of being redundant, we see Unger was forced to expose the grim reality of the ISO accreditation scheme. The ABs control who gets on CASCO, and thus control the content of key standards like ISO 17011 and ISO 17021-1. This allows them to dilute the rules to suit their own needs, at the expense of everyone else.

Meanwhile, ISO does have rules that require representation by the spectrum of key stakeholders in standards committees, but (by my reading of them) there is a special carve-out for CASCO, which isn’t treated as a normal Technical Committee or standards development committee. (Full disclosure, though, I may not have the latest set of rules, and understanding how they apply isn’t always easy. So I might be missing something.)

But until ISO fixes this embedded conflict of interest, which allows the inmates to create the asylum’s rules, the corruption of the accredited ISO certification scheme will continue.

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Traditional Tri-System