Appearances Can Be Deceiving
"Balance" requirements notwithstanding, there might be, as is often alleged, a lack of meaningful diversity in the interests actually represented in the private sector. In fact, the case studies suggest that the "balance" of interests in private standards-setting looks much better on paper than it does in reality. First, the requirement that interests be "balanced" seldom applies at the primary level of decisionmaking, where the standard is actually written. "Balance" tends to be required at the reviewing stage, not the writing stage. The general Z21 committee is "balanced," for example, but technical subcommittees, such as Z21.11.2, which are not, do all of the work. Similarly, UL's canvass lists are "balanced," but the standards themselves are written in-house. The significance of balanced participation depends, then, on the scope and significance of review. The more deference given to technical committee decisions, the less significant any "balance" requirements. Since review in the private sector tends to be highly deferential, the practical significance of current "balance" requirements appears minimal at best. (They may still have symbolic value, of course.) The real decisions are made by technical committees or individual engineers who operate outside these requirements.
Even when "balance" is required, the process is riddled with practical problems. The categories are too crude. For example, under the most elaborate classification system—NFPA's—insurance company representatives complain that brokers, who really represent the interests of their clients, not of the insurance industry, are classified as "insurance" representatives. It would take a classification scheme as complex as the Standard Industrial Classification system to begin to capture the important differences in business interests. Even then, unless participants were also classified by intraorganizational affiliation (for example, Engineering and Safety Department, General Counsel's Office, Marketing), it would be impossible to capture many of the significant differences in interests.
The problem is worse with consumer interests. The category "consumer" is so broad as to be practically meaningless. Everyone is a consumer. For a standard written by the Hydraulic Institute, both the Chemical Manufacturers Association and the American Water Works Association were considered "consumer" representatives. This kind of flexibility led an NFPA member active on several aviation committees to conclude that "classification of members in NFPA is a joke." Moreover, consumers care about more than just safety. "Good coffee," points out the manager of the J.C. Penney Testing Lab, "is as important as the quality of the handle on the pot." Cost can also be as important as safety. Not everyone wants or can afford the "Rolls Royce of coffee pots," or any other appliance for that matter. Styling is also important to consumers, as suggested by the marketing adage about 1956—the year Ford sold safety and Chevrolet sold cars.
Still, concerns about the "balance" of participating interests appear to be validated by the modest voice that organized consumer groups have relative to manufacturers in private standards-setting. UL and some ANSI-sponsored committees pay lip service to "consumer participation," but consumer groups play only a minimal role in the process.