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Who Accredits the Accreditor?

April 20, 2017  | By  | 1 Comment

Who accredits the accreditor? I was just recently asked this question.  To answer this question, we must go back and describe the landscape.  First, there are many types of accrediting bodies.  For example, there are bodies that accredit universities and educational institutions such as the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS) and there are Specialized Accrediting bodies who accredited specific types of institutions such as Schools of Nursing, Schools of Business or specific programs such as physical therapy or social work.  These higher education accreditations are recognized either by the Council on Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) or the Department of Education or both.  Both have transparent standards that these accreditation bodies must meet.  Even ANSI accredits more than certification bodies for persons.

For this post, we are going to focus on Accreditation Bodies that accredit Conformity Assessment Bodies (CABs) which include certification bodies for persons.  Next we have to address what accreditation standard the accrediting body is accrediting to.  For certification of persons, ANSI accredits to an ISO standard (ISO/IEC 17024 Conformity Assessment – General requirements for bodies operating certification of persons).  Additionally in the United States, the International Accreditation Service, Inc. (IAS) also accredits to the ISO/IEC 17024 standard as does the United Accreditation Foundation (UAF) and the International Certification Accreditation Council (ICAC).

But not all person certification accreditors accredit to an ISO standard.  The National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA) accredits certification bodies for persons and they accredit to their own standard, the NCCA’s Standards for the Accreditation of Certification Programs. The National Association of State Contractors Licensing Agencies (NASCLA) accredits providers who provide examinations specifically meeting their Commercial General Building Contractors Test specifications.

The other background information needed to understand this post is who the International Accreditation Forum (IAF) is, and what a Multi-Lateral Recognition Arrangement (MLA) is.  IAF is the world association of Accreditation Bodies and other bodies interested in conformity assessment. ANSI, IAS and UAF are all members of IAF from the U.S. An MLA is an agreement to recognize accreditation offered by other accreditation bodies who are signatories to the MLA and have demonstrated through a peer review process that they abide by ISO/IEC 17011 and the relevant accreditation standard (in this case ISO/IEC 17024).  This is explained in more detail below.  IAF describes the MLA here.

The IAF MLA relies heavily on Regional Accreditation Groups which are smaller clusters of countries that work together as part of IAF.  For the United States, the regional accreditation group associated with Certification of Persons is the Pacific Accreditation Cooperation (PAC). PAC has a MLA for the certification of persons. Members of IAF and IAF Regional Accreditation Groups are accepted as signatories to the MLA if they are found to meet an ISO standard for how they operate as an Accreditation Body.  That standard is ISO/IEC 17011: Conformity Assessment – Requirements for accreditation bodies accrediting conformity assessment bodies.  ISO/IEC 17011 describes how Accreditation Bodies are to operate when accrediting certification bodies.

In order to determine if an Accreditation Body is meeting ISO/IEC 17011, IAF has created a peer evaluation process where assessors from other Accreditation Bodies in other countries conduct an audit of the Accreditation Body.  In addition, the accreditation body must demonstrate they are properly evaluating the certification body against the requirements of the relevant standard, in this case, ISO/IEC 17024.  If the Accreditation Body is found to have met ISO/IEC 17011 and is properly evaluating Certification Bodies to ISO/IEC 17024 for the certification of persons, then they are accepted as a signatory to that specific MLA.  For example, ANSI is part of PAC and has also been recognized under the PAC MLA for person certification.

So what should a certification body look for when selecting an Accreditation Body to accredit their Certification Body?  There are a couple of hallmarks of a quality Accreditation Body.  Here are things to ask your Accreditation Body:

Is your Accreditation Body actually conducting accreditation activities?

ISO/IEC 17011 (clause 3.1) defines accreditation as “third-party attestation related to a conformity assessment body conveying formal demonstration of its competence to carry out specific conformity assessment tasks”.  There are two important aspects of this definition that help to define if an Accreditation Body is actually conducting accreditation activities.  The first is “third-party attestation”.  Remembering the blog post talking about first, second and third party, third-party means the Accreditation Body cannot be accrediting its own certification or examination programs. That would be first party and is not an acceptable accreditation activity.

The other important part of the accreditation definition above are the terms “conformity assessment body” and “conformity assessment tasks”.  An Accreditation Body accredits conformity assessment bodies (Certification Bodies) that are carrying out conformity assessment tasks (certifying people).  Accreditation of Certification Bodies for persons is not accrediting examinations (particularly educationally based examinations) or accrediting examination providers.  An examination by itself does not meet the definition of “certification”. An examination is a component of certification but it isn’t certification by itself.  Therefore examinations alone are not accredited.  And an examination provider (such as Professional Testing) that develops examinations for another body is not a Certification Body.

Accreditation Bodies accredit certification bodies for persons, not just the examinations even if they are a part of certification. And these programs are required (according to ISO/IEC 17024) to award certification to the person and then to recertify the person on a regular basis and have procedures for revoking the certification of the person.

There are bodies who look specifically at examinations.  For example the Buros Center for Testing at the University of Nebraska (http://buros.org/) has a test review and test recognition process where they look at the quality of the examinations (tests) and note those that meet industry standards (http://buros.org/test-reviews-information).  This can be a valuable service and important for those who are seeking input on the quality and validity of their examinations.  But this is not accreditation and definitely not accreditation of a Certification Body.

Ask your Accreditation Body if they are accrediting their own certification or examination programs.  If they are, they are not actually conducting accreditation activities.  Ask your Accreditation Body if they are accrediting examinations, particularly educational examinations.  If so, they are not conducting accreditation activities.

Is your Accreditation Body accrediting to a published standard?

Accreditation is a conformity assessment activity whereby the Accreditation Body is evaluating the Certification Body to see if it is in conformance with a standard.  As a Certification Body, you should know what that standard is and be sure that the standard is an accepted, consensus-based standard for the industry you operate in (in this case in the certification of persons industry).

Ask your Accreditation Body what standard they are accrediting you to and how that standard was developed.  Ask your Accreditation Body how you can obtain a copy of that standard and then make sure you obtain a copy.

What is the experience of your Accreditation Body in conducting accreditation activities?

Anybody can call themselves an Accreditation Body.  Anybody can accredit a Certification Body to an ISO standard.  Thus any organization can accredit CBs to ISO/IEC 17024.  But just because a body calls themselves an Accreditation Body and says they are accrediting to a standard for Certification of Persons, doesn’t mean they understand accreditation or have any experience accrediting Certification Bodies.

The National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA) has been accrediting certification bodies for persons since 1977.  ANSI began conducting accreditation of certification bodies for persons in 2003 when ISO/IEC 17024 was first issued.  Both of these Accrediting Bodies have extensive experience accrediting Certification Bodies for persons.

Ask your Accreditation Body how long they have been accrediting certification bodies for persons.  Ask them how many certification bodies for persons they have accredited.  Look at the websites for the accredited certification bodies to be sure they really are certification bodies.

Does the Accreditation Body meet a standard of performance itself?

As mentioned, Accrediting Bodies who are signatories to the IAF MLAs and Regional Accreditation Group MLAs have been assessed against ISO/IEC 17011: Conformity Assessment – Requirements for accreditation bodies accrediting conformity assessment bodies and evaluated to see if they are properly evaluating certification bodies against ISO/IEC 17024.

Ask your Accreditation Body what standard they are meeting as an accreditation body.

Is the Accreditation Body assessed by a third party?

Accreditation Bodies who are signatories to the IAF MLAs and Regional Accreditation Group MLAs are assessed using a peer evaluation process.  That means Assessors from other Accreditation Bodies visit the AB onsite and conduct a thorough evaluation of the operation of the Accreditation Body.

Ask your Accreditation Body what third party has assessed their operations.

Does your Accreditation Body have influence outside of the US?  Is it a signatory to the IAF MLA or an IAF Regional Accreditation Group MLA?

Accreditation Bodies who are members of IAF or a Regional Accreditation Group and signatories to the IAF or Regional Accreditation Group MLA for persons, have demonstrated that their ISO/IEC 17024 accreditation holds influence outside of the United States for the accredited certification body.

Ask your Accreditation Body if they are a member of IAF and a Regional Accreditation Group (PAC for the US).  Ask your Accreditation Body if they have been accepted as a signatory to the PAC MLA for certification of persons.

In summary, quality Accreditation Bodies conduct accreditation activities, accredit to a published standard, have experience conducting accreditation of certification bodies, are evaluated by a third party as meeting a standard, belong to a body such as IAF or a Regional Accreditation Group, and are signatories to an international MLA for persons.  These are all hallmarks of a quality Accreditation Body and one worth the investment of obtaining accreditation from by a certification body.

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Dr. Cynthia Woodley is the convenor (Chair) of the ISO working group that just completed updating ISO/IEC 17011 and also chairs the IAF working group for ISO/IEC 17024.

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