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What are ISOs and why do they matter for public sector suppliers?

Written by Thornton & Lowe


Jul 04, 2024


If you are a supplier of goods or services to the public sector, you may have come across the term ISO in your tender documents or contracts. ISO stands for International Organization for Standardization, and it is a global body that develops and publishes standards for various aspects of business, technology, and society. ISO standards are voluntary, but they can provide a competitive edge for suppliers who want to demonstrate their quality, efficiency, and reliability to their customers.

In this blog, we will explain what ISOs are, why they are important in public sector procurement, how to get accredited and how to maintain accreditation. We will also share some tips and resources to help you achieve ISO standards for your business.

What are ISOs?

ISOs are standards that specify the requirements, guidelines, or best practices for a product, service, process, system, or organisation. They cover a wide range of topics, such as quality management, environmental management, information security, health and safety, energy efficiency, and social responsibility. There are over 23,000 ISO standards in existence, and new ones are being developed every year.

ISOs are developed by experts from different countries and sectors, who form technical committees and working groups to draft, review, and revise the standards. The standards are then approved by the ISO member bodies, which are national standards organisations from around the world. ISO does not provide certification or accreditation for the standards, but it publishes them and makes them available for anyone to use.

Why are ISOs important in public sector procurement?

ISOs are important in public sector procurement for several reasons. First, they can help suppliers meet the expectations and requirements of their customers, who are often looking for evidence of quality, efficiency, and reliability in their procurement decisions. By following ISO standards, suppliers can demonstrate that they have a consistent and systematic approach to delivering their products or services, and that they comply with relevant regulations and best practices.

Second, ISOs can help suppliers improve their performance and competitiveness, by providing them with a framework and a set of tools to identify and address their strengths and weaknesses, and to implement continuous improvement. By adopting ISO standards, suppliers can benefit from increased customer satisfaction, reduced costs, enhanced productivity, and improved risk management.

Third, ISOs can help suppliers gain access to new markets and opportunities, by increasing their credibility and visibility in the global marketplace. Many public sector organisations, especially in the UK, require or prefer suppliers to have ISO certification or accreditation, as a way of ensuring quality and compatibility across borders. By achieving ISO standards, suppliers can increase their chances of winning public sector contracts, both domestically and internationally.

How to get accredited and how to maintain accreditation?

To achieve ISO accreditation, suppliers need to undergo a process of assessment and verification by an independent third-party organisation, called a certification body or a registrar. The certification body will audit the supplier's processes, systems, and documentation, and check whether they conform to the requirements of the relevant ISO standard. If the supplier meets the criteria, the certification body will issue a certificate of conformity, which is valid for a certain period of time, usually three years.

To maintain accreditation, suppliers need to keep their processes, systems, and documentation up to date and in line with the ISO standard, and to undergo periodic surveillance audits by the certification body, usually once a year. The certification body will monitor the supplier's performance and compliance and identify any areas for improvement or corrective action. If the supplier fails to meet the requirements, the certification body may suspend or withdraw the certificate of conformity.

Tips and resources for achieving ISO standards

Achieving ISO standards can be a challenging and rewarding process, but it requires commitment, planning, and resources. Here are some tips and resources to help you get started and succeed:

  • Choose the right ISO standards for your business: There are many ISO standards available, but not all of them may be relevant or applicable to your products, services, or processes. You need to identify the ISO standard that best suits your business objectives, customer needs, and industry sector. You can browse the ISO catalogue or use the ISO search tool to find the most suitable standard for you
  • Understand the requirements of the ISO standard: Once you have chosen the ISO standard, you need to familiarise yourself with its content, structure, and terminology. You need to understand what the standard expects from you, and what evidence you need to provide to demonstrate your conformity. You can purchase the ISO standard from the ISO store or from your national standards organisation, and you can also access some free resources, such as ISO handbooks, guides, and case studies, to help you interpret and implement the standard
  • Conduct a gap analysis: Before you apply for certification, you need to assess your current situation and identify the gaps between your existing practices and the requirements of the ISO standard. You need to evaluate your processes, systems, and documentation, and determine what you need to change, improve, or create to meet the standard. You can conduct a gap analysis yourself, or you can hire a consultant or a trainer to help you with this step
  • Implement the changes and improvements: After you have identified the gaps, you need to plan and execute the actions to close them. You need to design and document your processes, systems, and procedures, and ensure that they are aligned with the ISO standard. You also need to train and communicate with your staff, and make sure that they understand and follow the standard. You need to monitor and measure your performance and collect and record the data and evidence to support your conformity
  • Choose a reputable certification body: When you are ready to apply for certification, you need to select a certification body that is accredited and recognised by the relevant authorities and stakeholders. You need to check the certification body's scope, competence, and reputation, and compare their fees, services, and terms and conditions. You can find a list of accredited certification bodies from your national accreditation body, or from the International Accreditation Forum (IAF)
  • Prepare for the audit: Before the certification body conducts the audit, you need to prepare yourself and your staff for the audit process. You need to review your processes, systems, and documentation, and ensure that they are complete, accurate, and consistent. You also need to gather and organise the evidence and records that demonstrate your conformity and make them available and accessible for the auditors. You need to brief your staff on the audit objectives, criteria, and methods, and encourage them to cooperate and communicate with the auditors.
  • Follow up on the audit results: After the audit, the certification body will provide you with a report that summarises the audit findings, conclusions, and recommendations. You need to review the report and address any nonconformities, observations, or opportunities for improvement that the auditors have identified. You need to implement the corrective actions and preventive actions and provide the evidence and documentation to the certification body. If you have successfully met the requirements, the certification body will issue you the certificate of conformity
  • Keep improving and updating: After you have achieved the certification, you need to maintain and improve your processes, systems, and documentation, and ensure that they continue to conform to the ISO standard. You need to conduct internal audits and management reviews and implement the necessary changes and improvements. You also need to prepare for the surveillance audits and the recertification audits and demonstrate your ongoing commitment and performance to the certification body.

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