(Inter)national Standardisation Bodies: who & what

As a company, chances are high that at some point or other you’ll need to have an inspection done. This could be a financial audit, an analysis of the working conditions or health & safety inspections. Insurance companies, for example, may need a specific certification for certain benefits. And because we trade goods and services globally, it’d help if we would all understand each other when talking about safety and quality. There’d be a ton of hassle if we all used a completely different set of rules and standards. To make this process easy and streamlined, Standardisation Bodies exist.

There are many differen standardisation bodies, and almost all of them work together in some capacity. Since there are so many organisations, committees and standards, I started to wonder how they all fit together. How they prevent duplicate or even conflicting standards from existing? Is there a ranking of authority between them? In short: how do they make sure they get out of each other’s way?

I did some digging on these organisations and how they work together on different levels. It soon became clear to me that it’s a world with many different key organisations, joint committees and levels of cooperation. There are some blurred lines between these cooperative constructions. In this light it’s very important to keep the following in mind: standards are agreements between economic operators. They are not legally binding in and of themselves.

One last thing to note: in this article I’ll focus on technical standardisation bodies. Things such as electrical engineering, the built environment and communication technology.

Without further do, let’s get started with a list of standardisation bodies:


NEN (Nederlandse Norm)

NEN exists since 2000 as a close partnership between two organisations. The “Royal Dutch Standardisation Foundation” and the “Royal Dutch Electrotechnical Committee”. While both organisations still exist independently, they operate together under the NEN-name. It has become the Dutch representative in several international standardisation organisations. They currently manage over 34.000 (inter)national norms.


The dutch SCIOS foundation owns an important standard in The Netherlands: the SCOPE-standard. SCIOS stands for “Stichting Certificering Inspectie en Onderhoud van Stookinstallaties” (Foundation for the Certification, Inspection and Maintenance of Combustion Plants/Heating Systems). Developed in the late 1990s, it has been continuously updated since. SCIOS has three parts. Combustion-based Machinery (SCOPE 1 through 7), Electrical Equipment (SCOPE 8 through 10 & 12) and Explosion Safety Inspection for Machinery (SCOPE 11). SCOPE is a variant on the corresponding NEN-standards but has more requirements. SCOPE-inspections (where applicable) are overtaking the traditional NEN-inspections in popularity.


Europe has three distinct, official bodies for standardisation: CEN, CENELEC and ETSI. They continue to exist independently up until today. In 1999 the European Parliament concluded that merging these organisations would have no benefits.

CEN (European Committee for Standardization)

Founded in 1961, the CEN is the European organisation for the development of standards. It comprises the national committees of its member states. For example the Dutch NEN, the German DIN and the Italian UNI. Together, these committees develop standards for e.g. accessibility, environment and artificial intelligence.

CENELEC (European Committee for Electrotechnical Standardization)

A separate, private institution that develops standards in the area of electrical engineering. CENELEC was founded in 1973, taking over from the two separate European committees (CENELCOM and CENEL). CENELEC focuses on electrotechnical standardisation.

ETSI (European Telecommunications Standards Institute)

ETSI was established in 1988 by the CEPT (European Conference of Postal and Telecommunications). ETSI concerns itself with standardisation of telecommunication protocols and networking services. Examples of technologies that ETSI has standardised are TETRA (communication standard used by security services) and UMTS (like 3G and 4G mobile connection).


ISO (International Organization for Standardization)

ISO is the most well-known of international organisations that develop and manage standards. You’d be forgiven for thinking their name is an acronym for “International Standardisation Organisation” (I know I did, at least). But, the name comes from the Greek word “isos”, which means “equal”. Formed in 1947, the organisation published its first, international standard in 1951. Many European and national committees base their standards on ISO.

IEC (International Electrotechnical Commission)

The International Electrotechnical Commission is one of the oldest organisations on this list. It was founded in 1906 and currently has 89 international members. As the name suggests, the IEC handles the fields of electrical and electronic engineering. Their work ranges from power systems to nanotechnology and kitchen appliances.

ITU (International Telecommunication Union)

When it comes to lifetime, the ITU takes the crown! It was founded in 1865 to “facilitate connectivity in communications networks”. The initial goal was to connecting telegraph networks of different countries. As communication technologies evolved over the next century-and-a-half, their responsibilities extended. Nowadays, the ITU works with anything involving communication at a distance, including standards for phone calls and online connections.

How do they work together?

With so many different standardisation bodies, there has to be a form of cooperation. Otherwise, every government and organisation would be drowning in an unclear swamp of standards and regulations. And that’s got to be bad for business everywhere! To prevent this from happening, several agreements and regulations have been put into place. I’ll go through the most important ones. Beware: things are about to get a little muddy here and there.

Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade

First off, the World Trade Organization has set some rules in the Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade. This agreement has a few different purposes, all to ensure fair trade between nations. Article 4 in particular focuses on the development of (inter)national standards. It describes the relation between national and international bodies (for the enthusiasts; Annex 3F):

“Where international standards exist or their completion is imminent, the standardizing body shall use them, or the relevant parts of them, as a basis for the standards it develops, except where such international standards or relevant parts would be ineffective or inappropriate, for instance, because of an insufficient level of protection or fundamental climatic or geographical factors or fundamental technological problems”

In short: international standards will always be the groundwork for developing national standards.

Vienna Agreement

CEN and ISO signed The Vienna Agreement in 2001 to prevent duplicate and conflicting standards between the two parties. The agreement describes how the two parties should work together and how the two parties should make decisions. CEN has adopted some ISO standards that have replaced corresponding CEN standards.


With many key players in international standardisation, you’d expect some overlap. ISO and IEC cooperate in the area of Information Technology (IT). To this end, they established the JTC1, the Joint Technical Committee. The JTC1 consists of various advisory groups anaimittees. Their main aim is to “play a role in recommending baselines and standards for safety features, acceptable quality measures and testing, for example.” In short: together, they develop protocols and standards for the IT field.

But… Hang on… Aren’t IT and telecommunications related? And didn’t we just say the ITU responsible for international standards when it comes to telecommunications?

Yes and yes. I told you things would get a bit muddy. Here’s how it works:

To establish proper cooperation between JTC1 and ITU, all three parties (ISO, IEC and ITU) have composed a guide document. In this document, the three parties define the role of both committees as follows:

ITU has responsibilities for “studying technical, operating and tariff questions and adopting recommendations on them with a view to standardizing telecommunications on a worldwide basis.”

JTC1 has a the task of “standardization in the field of information technology.”

The guide document specifies how they work together on new standards. Sometimes, one party acts as ‘liaison’, sometimes they work in full collaboration. This way, all parties involved can be sure they aren’t doing duplicate work. Additionally, it unifies international standardisation for IT and telecommunications.

Compound naming

The final method of co-operation between standardisation bodies that I want to point out today, is compound naming. Any national standards that are based on European or international standards will have a reference in its code. For example:

NEN-EN 261 is a standard for protective equipment against falls from height. It’s a Dutch NEN-standard, based on the European EN 361-standard.

DIN EN ISO 128 is a standard for technical drawings. It’s a German DIN-standard based on the international ISO 128-standard.

This compound naming shows you the origin of standards and whether they’re national, regional or international.

A final observation

I’m not going to lie: my head is still spinning from the different standardisation bodies and the relationships between them. Coordinating between all these different parties and making sure none of them do duplicate work or contradict each other, seems like a daunting task!

The most important thing we’ll have to remember is that all these organisations have the same goal: to make life safer and easier for everyone. As long the standards they develop contribute to that, I’d consider that mission accomplished!