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A study on services certification linked to service standards at national level in Europe

This report sets out the findings from a study on services certification linked to service standards at national level in Europe, which was carried out by the Technopolis Group on behalf of Nordic Innovation in the period September 2011 – February 2012.
  • Published 13.3.2012

Context

The services sector is an important part of the European economy, accounting for roughly two-thirds of GDP and employment across the region.  Despite its economic significance, there is relatively little cross-border trade in services within Europe, and a number of barriers exist that limit the functioning of the single market for services.  Standardisation and certification activity have the potential to help improve service quality and facilitate cross-border trade in services, particularly when carried out and coordinated at European and/or International levels.  However, when carried out at national level, standardisation and certification of services can introduce different (sometimes competing) requirements, which can cause confusion, introduce unnecessary costs and create barriers to entry for companies seeking to trade their services in different member states. 

 

In 2008 Nordic Innovation initiated a project entitled “Nordic platforms for better trade in services”.  Through this project Nordic Innovation and its partners aim to contribute to a well-functioning Nordic and European market for services by ensuring high quality service provision and avoiding internal trade barriers and fragmentation of markets.  The project has involved the commissioning of a number of studies aimed at developing an improved understanding of standardisation and certification in the field of services, in order to determine how and where such activities promote or inhibit the single European market for services.  This particular study was commissioned to provide an improved factual understanding of the rate of development of service standards and the extent to which these lead on to the development of related certification schemes at different geographical levels and within different areas of services.

 

Study objectives

The primary objective of the study was to identify the extent to which the development of standards for services is followed up by the development of related certification schemes at national level within Europe.  In addition the study aimed to:

  • Provide an up to date list of existing ‘full’ national and European standards in the field of services developed by the recognised standardisation bodies (CEN and its national members)
  • Clarify the current involvement of National Standards Bodies (NSBs) in certification activity
  • Identify all current and planned certification schemes operating at national level within Europe, and describe these in terms of their scope, sector, geographic applicability, year of launch and operator.  (Only those schemes that are linked to formerly adopted full national, European or International service standards were in scope)
  • Determine, based on the schemes identified, the areas of services that are most affected with regard to certification
  • Identify trends over time in the development of service standards and related certification schemes

 

The geographical scope of the study was limited to 32 European countries (27 EU member states, four EFTA countries and Croatia). 

 

Study approach

The study team adopted a relatively simple and straightforward approach to collecting, analysing and reporting the information required.  In the first instance, desk research was carried out to compile as complete as possible a list of existing national and European service standards, building on a preliminary list developed by CEN.  Desk research was then used to identify and compile contact details for all accredited certification bodies operating within the 32 European countries in scope.

 

Next, the study team developed a series of information requests to be directed to NSBs and Certification Bodies, which sought to collect basic information on the current stock of service standards and relevant certification schemes (both existing and planned) respectively.  These information requests were translated into six European languages and mailed to NSBs (n=31) and certification bodies (n=1,322) in late September 2011.  Responses were logged and reminders sent to non-respondents during October and November 2011, and particular efforts were made to secure responses from Certification Bodies with direct links to NSBs, as it was expected that these would be most likely to operate schemes of relevance to the study. 

 

Overall, 23% of the organisations that received our request for information provided a response, with the figures being much higher for NSBs (84%) and Certification Bodies linked to NSBs (77%) than for other Certification Bodies not linked to NSBs (21%).  The relatively low response rate obtained from these other Certification Bodies was expected because it was known in advance that most would not operate schemes of relevance to the study.

 

In December 2011 a full analysis of the results was carried out and two reports were prepared – a short, summary report written for a general audience and this (more detailed) main report.

 

In carrying out the study a small number of methodological issues were encountered that have in some way limited our attempts to provide a complete picture of services standardisation and certification in Europe, and to understand recent trends therein.  The main issues have been summarised in the report in the hope that future studies can be better prepared to deal with them.

 

Study findings

Development of standards for services

The study has identified that a total of 55 full European standards and 380 full national standards have been developed and are currently available in the area of services.  This is a relatively small number in comparison to the several thousand product standards developed at national and European levels over the past few decades. Of the 32 countries in scope, France, Italy, Austria and Spain have developed the largest number of national service standards (40+ each), while Belgium, Croatia, Iceland, Luxembourg, Poland, Bulgaria, Liechtenstein and Slovenia have yet to develop any standards in the field of services. 

 

The rate of development of new service standards is not easy to determine accurately due to difficulties in identifying the original first year of publication of each standard and because standards may exist first at national level before being developed at European level.  However, based on the data collected through the study it appears that the rate of development of new European standards is fairly uniform while the rate of development of new national service standards is increasing.  From 1998-2004 three times as many new national service standards were developed compared to European ones, and from 2005-11 this ratio increased to almost five times as many.   Based on recent trends it therefore seems likely that the numbers of service standards in existence will continue to rise at both national and European levels, but the rate of development will be faster at national level, leading to a widening gap between the numbers of standards at national versus European level.

 

The 435 national and European standards identified in this study have been developed across a very wide range of service areas.  There are relatively large numbers of service standards in the areas of (i) facilities and maintenance; (ii) construction and utilities; (iii) transport and logistics; and (iv) finance and real estate. 

 

In a number of areas there has been a relatively high level of standardisation activity at national level with little or no corresponding activity at European level.  This profile is most evident in the areas of construction & utilities; education, training and recruitment, finance and real estate, food and accommodation; healthcare and personal services, and ‘cross-sectoral’ areas such as procurement and contracts.  Across these areas combined, a total of 184 national service standards have been developed as compared to just four at European level. 

 

The study has also identified the areas of services where national standards have been developed in the largest number of different countries.  These are as follows: cleaning services (11 countries); security services (7); Procurement and contracts (6); maintenance services (6); personal services (6) sport and leisure services (6) and tourism services (6).

 

Development of certification schemes at national level

In total, the study has identified 163 relevant certification schemes linked to service standards, which are operated by 41 different Certification Bodies based in 17 different countries.  The 163 schemes collectively cover 111 different service standards, or 26% of those identified through the study.  A higher proportion of the European service standards have linked certification schemes (44%) as compared to national service standards (23%).

 

Most of the Certification Bodies that responded to our request for information do not operate any schemes linked to service standards, and of those that do most operate only a small number (1-3).  A pool of 14 Certification Bodies that are formally linked to NSBs operate the majority (63%) of the schemes, and most of the Certification Bodies operating larger numbers of schemes have formal links to the NSBs.  The study has therefore confirmed that certification schemes linked to formal standards are most likely to be developed and implemented by NSB-linked Certification Bodies.

 

As expected, larger numbers of schemes were found to be operating in the larger European countries (France, UK, Spain, Austria and Germany).  However, when compared to the number of national service standards in place in each country, Denmark, Germany, Ireland, Netherlands, Slovakia and the UK were found to have the highest numbers of schemes proportionately.  In contrast, Estonia, Italy, Norway and Switzerland were found to have relatively few certification schemes in operation compared to the stock of national service standards that have been developed in those countries.

 

The study has identified that the vast majority of certification schemes are each linked to just one standard, and that the schemes in almost all cases provide ‘full’ coverage of the standard(s) to which they relate.  In a small number of cases schemes were identified that are linked to several standards, and in one case a scheme was found to cover seven different standards.  While schemes may be linked to more than one standard it was relatively rare for them to link to standards at different geographical levels (e.g. national and European standards).  We also found few instances where the schemes covered criteria or requirements beyond those set out in the standard(s) to which they relate.

 

Efforts to identify the time-lag between the development of new service standards and the launch of related certification schemes were confounded somewhat by problems obtaining the first year of publication of the standards and/or the year of launch of the schemes.  However, the data obtained suggests that most schemes are launched within three years of publication of a standard, although in some cases it took as many as ten or more years for schemes to come into operation.

 

A particular focus of the study was to identify areas of services that are most affected by certification activity.  The study identified relatively high numbers of certification schemes compared to the number of published national and European standards in the areas of (i) security and emergency services, (ii) customer contact, (iii) tourism, and (iv) transport and logistics.  These are all areas of high significance to consumers and this may in part explain the relatively large numbers of certification schemes, since service providers may be required or otherwise desire to demonstrate high levels of service quality.  In contrast, there are relatively low numbers of certification schemes compared to the number of published national and European standards in the areas of (i) facilities and maintenance, (ii) construction and utilities, and (iii) cross sector (mainly generic management systems).  The relatively low incidence of schemes in these areas may indicate a lower level of importance in terms of demonstrating conformity with the standards through third-party certification.

 

The study sought to profile 57 sub-areas of services in terms of the numbers of schemes in operation, the countries involved, and the numbers and geographical level of the standards to which the schemes relate.  The basis for the analysis was that trade barriers are more likely to be introduced in areas where multiple schemes are operating, particularly if those schemes are linked to several different sets of requirements in several different countries.  While it was beyond the scope of this study to establish whether the schemes actually create barriers to trade in services in the areas highlighted, they have nonetheless been flagged as areas for possible future investigation at a more detailed level.   The sub-areas identified as suitable for future investigation, based on these criteria, are as follows: Transport services; Security services; Call-centre services; Accommodation services; Removals services; QMS – service-specific; Cleaning services; Utility services; Education services; Vehicle services; Water sport services; Other sport and leisure services; Tourist guide services; Tourism information services; Training services; Construction services.

 

Future expectations

The Certification Bodies participating in the study were asked to notify us about any planned schemes of relevance that they expect to launch in future.  The study found that most do not have any specific plans to develop new schemes, but a small number of schemes (n=21) were notified as under development and due to be launched during 2012.  Approximately half of the schemes will be linked to national service standards and half will be linked to European standards.  Based on the number of schemes launched in recent years – roughly 10-20 per year – it seems likely that the steady growth in certification schemes will continue, at least in the immediate future. 

 

Certification bodies were also asked to indicate whether they expect the number of certification schemes in the area of services to increase, decrease or remain stable in future.  Most (69%) of the Certification Bodies expect the number of schemes to increase in the coming years, and only one predicted a fall in the number of schemes.  It therefore seems probable that the number of certification schemes in the area of services will continue to rise in the years ahead, but there are no indications that they will proliferate in the immediate future.

 

Conclusions

Service standards

The study has established that seven times as many service standards exist at national level within the 32 countries in scope (n=380) as compared to European service standards (n=55).  We have also found that the number of services standards is increasing at both national and European levels, and that the rate of development is increasing faster at national than at European level.  While this trend cannot be confirmed categorically, it would seem prudent to maintain a periodic watch on the rate of development of national and European service standards, to ensure that any proliferation at national level does not begin to introduce barriers to trade in services as a result of competing or conflicting requirements.

 

Analysis of the current stock of service standards has led us to conclude that certain areas of services have a very high ratio of national to European standards.  These areas are (i) construction and utilities, (ii) education, training and recruitment, (iii) finance and real estate, (iv) food and accommodation, (v) healthcare and personal services, and (vi) cross-sectoral areas (such as R&D services, procurement, contracts, etc.).  Further investigations might usefully be carried out to better understand why these areas have proved to be amenable to high levels of national standardisation without much corresponding activity at the European level. 

 

Certification schemes

The main finding of the study is that 25% of the national and European service standards currently in operation have related certification schemes at national level.  It is possible that the study has failed to identify some relevant certification schemes but we do not believe that these will exist in large numbers.  We therefore conclude that somewhere between 25%-30% of the service standards currently adopted at national and European level have led on to the development of related certification schemes.  The majority of certification schemes are developed within 0-3 years following the publication of the standards to which they relate, but in some cases it takes as much as 11 years for the related certification schemes to be launched following the publication of a standard.

 

The 163 certification schemes identified through the study are operated by 41 different Certification Bodies based in 17 different countries.  Almost two thirds of the schemes are run by Certification Bodies that are formally linked to the National Standards Bodies, either forming part of the same legal organisation or otherwise being linked through joint ownership.  Certification Bodies linked to NSBs are more likely to be operating certification schemes in the area of services and in larger numbers than those that are not linked to the NSBs.

 

In almost all cases the certification schemes identified provide complete coverage of the standards to which they relate.  Only in a very small minority of cases do the schemes encompass additional criteria, and these tend to relate either to requirements concerning the performance of certification / accreditation activities or to requirements set out in national legislation or regulations in the area of services concerned.

 

There are a small number of areas of services with a high incidence of national standards and schemes but relatively few European ones.  The existence of high levels of national standardisation and certification activity in these areas, in the absence of European level developments, opens the possibility that barriers to trade in services might be introduced.  It might therefore be useful to conduct further investigations to determine the underlying reasons for this situation, and to explore the scope for more coordinated action at European level.

 

The study has also identified 16 sub-areas of services where two or more schemes are operating that link to standards at different levels (national, European, International) and/or in different countries.  In some cases more than ten schemes were identified in the same sub-area, and in some sub-areas schemes were identified in as many as seven different countries.  The existence of schemes in several different countries within the same sub-area of services, each of which is linked to different requirements, does create the potential for barriers to be introduced within the single market for services.  It has been beyond the scope of the study to identify whether such barriers exist within the areas identified, but Nordic Innovation may wish to focus future studies in one or more of these areas in order to better understand the (positive and negative) impacts of certification activity on cross-border trade in services.

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