UKAS’ Commercial Director, Mark Bohun talks about the power and importance of accredited certification.
Organisations have long understood the many potential business benefits of holding certification to an international management system such as the widely recognised ISO 9001 quality, ISO 14001 environmental and ISO 45001 occupational health and safety standards.
More than being a certificate to hang on the wall, certification is a powerful business tool, providing a degree of certainty in uncertain times. Externally, certification offers the potential to lower barriers to trade by opening doors to previously closed marketplaces, meeting and exceeding customer tender requirements and providing market differentiation. Internally, it can be used to help streamline processes, improve efficiency, mitigate business risk, manage growth and drive continual improvement.
Accreditation or certification?
Whilst the terms ‘accreditation’ and ‘certification’ are often used interchangeably, they are two distinct steps on the quality assurance ladder. Certification is the assessment of whether a management system, product, or person meets the criteria laid out in a generic quality standard or scheme. Sitting on the rung above, accreditation is the determination of the competence of the certification body to perform specific activities under a recognised international or national standard or scheme.
Working together, certification acts as the third-party endorsement of an organisation’s systems, products or personnel whilst accreditation is an independent third-party endorsement of that certification body’s competence. Just as end-user organisations seeking certification have to demonstrate to a certification body that they conform to the criteria of the relevant standard, in turn certification bodies have to demonstrate their competence, consistency and integrity to a National Accreditation Body (NAB) such as UKAS in order to be accredited. In other words, if certification bodies are ‘the checkers’ then UKAS’s role as the UK’s sole government-appointed NAB is to ‘check the checkers’.
Accredited or non-accredited certification?
Whilst there are three broad types of certification services (those certifying management systems, products or persons), certification bodies can be divided into two groups; those that are accredited by a recognised NAB (i.e. one that is a signatory to internationally recognised multilateral recognition arrangements such as the EA or IAF MLA) and those that aren’t. Understanding the differences between the two will help businesses make an informed choice about which type of certification suits their needs.
Whilst it is not mandatory for certification bodies to be accredited by an NAB, those that are accredited are able to demonstrate that they have been rigorously assessed by an independent authority against internationally recognised standards. Non-accredited certification bodies are not subject to this independent scrutiny.
Impartiality is a key component of achieving accredited status, meaning accredited certification bodies cannot offer both consultancy and certification services. Although this does not necessarily mean that a non-accredited certification body is not a competent, impartial and capable organisation, it does mean that it will have difficulty demonstrating it possesses these qualities in a universally accepted way.
Accreditation from a recognised NAB helps generate confidence in the competence of accredited certification bodies, and in turn, the competence of organisations that have been certified by accredited certification bodies. As a result, a growing number of organisations, in both the public and private sectors are requiring their suppliers’ management systems to be certified. Increasingly these procurers will only accept certificates issued by a certification body that has been accredited by a recognised NAB. In addition to becoming the expected industry norm for many sectors, accredited certification also offers market differentiation and shows credible evidence of best practice. Businesses with non-accredited certificates run the significant risk of being excluded from the tendering process and/or losing ground in an increasingly competitive marketplace.
In June 2022, UKAS launched CertCheck, a free online database that allows users to independently verify UKAS accredited certification. As many organisations both in the public and the private sectors specify that prospective suppliers must hold UKAS accredited certification, UKAS CertCheck will ensure that checking the current accreditation status of that certification will be a fast and simple process.
International assurance and acceptance
Recognised NABs that are members of international accreditation organisations such as IAF, ILAC and EA are subject to regular reviews by a cross section of their peers. This added layer of scrutiny provides assurance in the competence of the NAB, and in turn, increases confidence in the certificates issued by any certification bodies it accredits.
In addition to providing access to domestic contracts, accredited certification can open doors to a worldwide marketplace. Thanks to UKAS being a signatory to IAF, ILAC and EA multilateral agreements, accredited certificates are recognised in over 100 different economies, delivering a truly global “accredited once, accepted everywhere” service. Non-accredited certificates do not offer this level of competitive advantage, either at home or abroad.
The UK government shares the industry’s view over the relative merits of using accredited and non-accredited conformity assessment services. In addition to its Conformity Assessment and Accreditation Policy in the UK, government’s guidance on accreditation and conformity assessment also states that: “the only ‘authoritative statement’ of competence, that has public authority status – providing the last level of control in the conformity assessment chain is from the UK’s national accreditation body, UKAS.” Government therefore specifies the use of UKAS accredited organisations where testing, inspection or certification is required to demonstrate compliance with national legislation or guidance.
Having a sole NAB is important for the UK, as it provides certainty for regulators, accredited bodies and businesses using accredited services both in the UK and around the world. In line with a significant number of its international peers, UKAS is appointed by, but operates independently of government. This arrangement allows UKAS accreditation to underpin the UK’s quality infrastructure by working entirely in the public interest, free from commercial pressures and impartially from both government and the organisations it accredits.