Accreditation has been providing assurance to UK society for over 55 years. From its origins in metrology and calibration generating trust in the accuracy and traceability of measurements, accreditation now underpins trust in almost every aspect of everyday life. It is probably one of the best kept secrets that sits behind the scenes, quietly delivering confidence in the food we eat, the products we buy and the services we use. Since starting with a single standard, UKAS is now recognised by government as the sole national accreditation body for over fifteen different standards (including testing, certification, inspection, medical diagnostics and validation and verification) and accredits over 3,000 organisations.
The requirements of the standards for accreditation define the attributes of a system that ensures competence, impartiality and reliable outcomes. The rigour of the process may sometimes be perceived to be a burden for organisations that are required to gain and maintain accreditation. Undoubtedly there is effort involved in ensuring that staff are trained and aware of their responsibilities, that processes are effectively managed and monitored, that suitable resources are available, that suitable records are maintained, that clients’ expectations are understood and met….. the list goes on. But each of these activities play a vital part in ensuring risks are identified and mitigated and that outcomes can be trusted and that the process stands up to scrutiny.
With its increasing reach, it is not surprising that accreditation comes under the spotlight more frequently especially if there has been an incident or quality failure. It is right to scrutinise the assurance process in this way and to understand what can and needs to be improved.
Accreditation demonstrates competence across almost every industry sector and its application continues to grow within established sectors such as food and farming, product assurance, construction, forensics and healthcare. But is there a limit to its relevance? With the advent of automation, AI and other technology is there a risk that accreditation could become obsolete, either because other assurance mechanisms might be used and/or because the standards might not seem applicable?
The evidence suggests otherwise as we have seen accreditation adapt to changing customer and end user expectations, and standards change from process based to outcome focused with a greater emphasis on risk-based principles. One thing that has not changed is the use of technical experts drawn from the relevant industry to assess organisations by interpreting and applying the criteria for the sector and ensuring assessments are independent and impartial; this is our greatest strength. UKAS continues to work hard to maintain and extend its pool of experts used to provide advice and conduct assessments. A refresh of our technical advisory committees across key sectors is ensuring that we have access to broader industry practices and trends, enabling understanding of how technology is impacting on existing activities as well as emerging fields. UKAS has continued to expand its operations into new areas such as biobanking, identity assurance and genomics which demonstrate that accreditation as an assurance tool is as strong as ever.
Looking to the future, UKAS is now embedded in activities to develop assurance to support the move to net zero and to ensure trust can be developed in the use of AI, not only in the UK but also working with international partners and stakeholders to support the development of frameworks that will provide mutually recognised and interoperable solutions. Fifty years ago, it would have been hard to imagine that accreditation would have evolved to the extent it has now. The tried and tested concepts remain unchanged, the fundamental pillars of standards and accreditation delivering competence and governance have much to offer to facilitate certainty in uncertain times.