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Anyone who understands the third-party certification process knows that one of the most important questions to ask is, “How do I know a certification body is qualified to audit my organization?”
No doubt certification bodies often have been selected with little regard for qualifications. A customer requires certification, so the organization finds a certification body to do the job with little regard for what is to be gained, other than a certificate to the appropriate standard.
What to Look forBut how does one know that a certification body is qualified to audit the organization?
The organization can investigate, request references and examine the resumes of the proposed audit team. The certification body’s industry experience, background and expertise should be considered. Other factors such as scheduling issues, the certification body’s ability to meet a given time frame and its fee schedule should be examined, too. Also, an organization should feel comfortable with establishing a long-term relationship with the certification body.
While these issues are important, the first question an organization should ask is whether or not a prospective certification body is accredited by a signatory to the International Accreditation Forum (IAF) Multilateral Cooperative Arrangements (MLA)-an IAF MLA signatory.
Why is it important for a certification body to be accredited?
Because accreditation is the means to ensure that the certification body follows sound business practices and conforms to international requirements. It has been said that an accreditation body provides quality assurance to a certification body and IAF provides quality assurance to an accreditation body. Accreditation and certification bodies doing their jobs well provide the credibility, transparency and accountability essential to the third-party certification process.
An accredited certification body has been evaluated by a recognized accrediting body for its competence to audit and issue certification that confirms an organization meets the requirements of a standard, for example, ISO 9001. The accreditation body assesses a certification body’s management system and processes much like a certification body audits an organization seeking certification.
Accredited certification bodies undergo regular assessments by their accreditation bodies, just as certified companies are regularly audited by their certification bodies. The common aim of the certification and accreditation processes is to increase customer confidence.
Why should a certification body be accredited by a signatory to the International Accreditation Forum Multilateral Cooperative Arrangements?
Accreditation bodies that have signed the IAF MLA work together to harmonize their activities. This helps create confidence between certified organizations and the clients they supply. IAF members cooperate to ensure that accredited certificates are recognized nationally and internationally, thus enhancing confidence and reducing risk for customers engaging in trade worldwide.
IAF MLA signatories are required to comply strictly with the international standards and guides relevant to their operations. They also comply with guidance issued by IAF on the application of those standards or guides. And IAF MLA signatories undergo regular surveillance of their accreditation activities by IAF peer evaluation teams to ensure that their activities continue to meet IAF standards.
IAF also requires that accreditation bodies have effective procedures in place to ensure that all complaints received are thoroughly investigated and effective corrective action is taken as appropriate. Accreditation bodies are required to ensure that the certification bodies they accredit also have effective complaint procedures in place.
Policing Against MalpracticeThe built-in accountability of the third-party certification and accreditation system has been tested. In 2002, there were allegations of misconduct by a number of certification bodies operating in China that included combining consultancy and certification, performing audits with too few audit days, falsifying audit records and issuing fraudulent certificates. An investigation determined that some ISO 9000 certification bodies had signed contracts that included consulting and guarantees of passing the initial audit, and some had conducted audits against the 1994 edition of the standard but issued certificates indicating conformance to ISO 9001: 2000.
At that time, IAF cooperated with Chinese authorities through its complaint mechanism to facilitate communication with members affected and identify deficiencies. All complaints lodged with IAF are fully investigated, and, where inappropriate actions by any member are demonstrated, action is taken to prevent repetition of inappropriate action.
IAF reviewed its guidance and procedures in light of the investigation.
In response to a call from ISO’s then secretary general for ISO 9000 certification bodies and their accreditation bodies to do a better job of policing their community to weed out malpractice, IAF issued a statement in June 2002 pledging to work to ensure that conformity assessment activities operate with the highest integrity and competence to meet the expectations of industry and consumers.
Responding to criticism over the perceived inability of ISO 9000 accreditation bodies to effectively monitor the conduct of some certification bodies outside their base country of operation, members of IAF approved a policy aimed at multiplying their resources. The IAF Guidance on Cross Frontier Accreditation, issued in December 2003, imposes specific requirements on accreditation bodies to provide oversight of accredited certification bodies doing business in countries outside the accreditation body’s base of operations. The guidance allows and encourages IAF members to share assessors and assessment reports relating to the certification bodies they accredit.
Under the cross-frontier guidance, certification bodies are subject to monitoring by their direct accreditation body and potentially by other national accreditation bodies in countries where they have offices. Today’s global marketplace includes multinational certification bodies with offices in many locations around the world.
It can be challenging for a competent accreditation body to closely monitor the operations of its accredited certification bodies around the world. And the challenge is not just logistical. There also are cultural concerns to navigate because the local accreditation body and its assessors may have the best understanding of the local market. The cross-frontier guidance recognizes that people located where the certification body operates are often best positioned to evaluate what the certification body is doing.
Dealing with TransgressorsWhat happens in the event of inappropriate action by a certification body? As an example, consider the punitive actions that have been taken by the ANSI-ASQ National Accreditation Board (ANAB), the U.S. IAF member, an MLA signatory and accreditation body for all management system certification bodies in the United States.
An ANAB-accredited certification body was required to shed its consultancy several years ago to comply with requirements and maintain its accreditation. Suspensions sometimes occur and during the period of suspension, a certification body is forbidden from issuing new certificates until outstanding issues have been resolved. Twice the ANAB has withdrawn its accreditation from a certification body-an extreme action that is not taken lightly.
The ANAB and other accreditation bodies maintain an online directory of accredited certification bodies. When suspensions and withdrawals occur, an announcement is posted on the directory to make this information available to the public.
From time to time, it has come to the attention of the ANAB that an organization is using its accreditation mark inappropriately. For example, an organization that has not been accredited or is no longer accredited may be using the mark inappropriately or without authorization on a certificate or Web site.
Easy access to online information has made it easier to identify certification bodies and other organizations that do not conform to the third-party accreditation and certification system. The ANAB and some other accreditation bodies publish notices on their Web sites regarding unauthorized use of the ANAB accreditation mark. These notices have been an effective means of publicizing the actions of bad players.
The proliferation of Web sites and Internet access has made it easier for potential customers to learn if a certification body is accredited and in good standing. The Internet also serves as a wide-reaching means to disseminate information in the event of inappropriate behavior.
Unfortunately, technology also makes it easier to create fake certifications, with and without accreditation marks. It also is easy to create an official-looking Web site and fake accreditation. Therefore, it is important to be cautious about inconsistencies and gaps that may appear with regard to information about an unaccredited or dubiously accredited certification body.
The certification body’s name may be deceptively similar to that of a well-respected certification body. The certification body may downplay its accreditation or indicate that it is pursuing accreditation, is accredited by an organization that is not recognized internationally or is accredited by an organization with a relationship to itself-for example, an organization with common ownership that, therefore, may not be impartial or free of a conflict of interest. Similar issues may come into play with an organization falsely claiming certification.
While certification bodies that conduct business with integrity far outnumber the occasional bad player, it pays to be informed and exercise due diligence. Although false accreditation is the exception rather than the norm, it remains a potential hazard. Likewise, one should be aware that a lack of accreditation can indicate failure to comply with internationally accepted requirements, and a lack of surveillance and oversight that can equate to a system lacking rigor. Having no complaint process and no accreditation body accountable to investigate complaints means there is a serious lack of recourse for a wronged party.
In short, there are plenty of reasons to demand accreditation by a signatory of the IAF MLA. Foremost among them are the credibility, transparency and accountability that are the hallmarks of accreditation. Q
Quality OnlineFor more information on third-party certification, visit www.qualitymag.com to read these articles:
- “What’s in a Name: Accreditation vs. Certification”
- “The Importance of ISO”