The ISEAL Credibility Principles explain that for a certification scheme transparency means:
"Standards systems make relevant information freely available about the development and content of the standard, how the system is governed, who is evaluated and under what process, impact information and the various ways in which stakeholders can engage."
Before a scheme can be transparent the scheme owner must first have documented the key information about how the scheme is run. Having clear documentation is the first challenge because it takes time and resources to write it. In addition, this documentation should be written in clear, simple language that is easy for your stakeholders to understand and use.
Why bother with transparency?
Certification is a trust business. Certificate holders and all those in the value chain rely on your certification to ensure that the products they produce or trade conform to the standard. They rely on the assurance that the scheme is providing to assure their customers and manage their own risk. Consumers and other end users rely on the certification in their specifications and in making purchasing decisions.
Transparency is a means for scheme owners to assure all those that rely on the scheme that they are living up to their obligations in managing and operating the scheme. It is a means of demonstrating to users that the scheme is trustworthy, and as a result there can be confidence in the certification. Also, users, should they choose may examine the scheme to assure themselves that it is meeting their needs.
Transparency means that information is available to anyone that wants it, including governments, users, researchers, advocates, and anyone that is interested (including high school students writing assigned essays).
A minimum list for sharing with the public
The first step to facilitate transparency is to have a package of material available on the web for anyone to download. At a minimum this package should include:
- A procedure that describes how the standard is developed, revised and interpreted. This should include a complete description of the processes including how any interested party can participate, how decisions are made and who makes the decisions.
- A description of the purpose of the standard and its scope; that is what it is intended to accomplish and when it is applicable.
- An explanation of the governance of the scheme, including the scheme owner's board of directors (listing the members of the board, their terms of office and how they are appointed) and any other technical or advisory boards that play a role in the governance of the scheme.
- A description of the monitoring and evaluation program that is used by the scheme owner to evaluate the quality, consistency, efficiency and other aspects of the performance and operation of the scheme.
- A description of how the scheme evaluates its impacts; that is are the objectives of the scheme being achieved including the procedures used in making the evaluation as well as how conclusions are reached. It is best if in addition to this description that regular reports on performance are published.
A description of how stakeholders can become involved, this should include involvement in certification audits, standards development, governance and most importantly in commenting, raising a concern or making a formal complaint about a certificate, a certification body or the standard (or any other aspect of the scheme).
In addition to these documented procedures, policies and reports each scheme owner should consider what other information should be made freely available to the public. As a general rule, my advice to scheme owners is to default, wherever possible to being transparent. In other words don't just post the minimum information; only keep confidential the material that is absolutely necessary and make all the rest freely available.
A guiding principle is to be a generous as possible when it comes to being transparent. While it may mean that more questions come, it also is an opportunity to build trust with key individuals, organizations and institutions. Obviously there are limitations in terms of staff time and available resources but the investment will pay off.