Maintaining accreditation through remote assessments
The Covid-19 pandemic and government restrictions has seen remote working and the curtailing of services become the new norm for many organisations. Jeff Ruddle, Strategic Development Director at UKAS explains how UKAS is helping conformity assessment bodies during this time.
During this national emergency, the need for reliable, competent, and verifiable services is as high as ever. Where conformity assessment bodies (CABs) are continuing to provide their services, these are often under difficult circumstances of reduced staffing levels, altered working practices and disrupted supply chains. All of which challenge an organisation’s management system to ensure that their services are still fit for purpose.
Accreditation of an organisation provides confidence in the fitness for purpose of an organisation’s services. As such, it is essential that the confidence accreditation provides to CABs and their customers and stakeholders is not diminished at this time. All accreditation bodies currently find themselves in the situation of needing to provide this confidence but with their traditional business models of on-site assessment is severely restricted. Therefore, to continue to provide confidence, UKAS accelerated the implementation of its project on remote assessments and began to deliver remote assessments within a matter of weeks.
While UKAS is accepting applications for extensions to scope and new accreditations in all areas, priority has understandably been given to maintaining or renewing existing accreditations, as well as applications directly related to the fight against Covid-19 such as antibody and antigen testing.
In these difficult times, UKAS is adopting a collaborative approach to assessments without affecting its independence as the National Accreditation Body for the UK. To help conformity assessment bodies prepare for remote assessments, UKAS has held a series of technical webinars and produced guidance and FAQ documents, all of which are available to view/download on the UKAS website.
Although the format and timeframe of remote assessments will feel different to CABs, the structure, processes and fundamental nature of accreditation assessments remains the same. Meetings will be arranged, evidence requested, documentation reviewed, activities witnessed, specific issues discussed, any non-conformities highlighted (and hopefully closed) and a report/recommendation made. As the process relies heavily on IT solutions, CABs are advised to check access to and understanding of web-conferencing systems and that their internet/WiFi/4G connections are robust enough to conduct live meetings and information exchanges.
At the outset, UKAS Assessment Managers will agree a timetable with CABs and provide them with a list of documentation and records required. This is needed in advance of the due assessment date and can be provided through a wide range of common file sharing services (such as Dropbox) as well as e-mail.
The confirmation of ongoing technical competence is the aim of accreditation, and UKAS is pragmatic about how technical activities can be witnessed during remote assessments. A live video and audio stream is the ideal option, but a narrated video recording and/or screen-sharing solution could be an appropriate alternative. Where none of these are possible, then either a vertical audit of previous work or technical interviews of authorised staff could be undertaken. If none of these routes are available, then the fall-back option is to delay the witnessing element of the assessment until Covid-19 restrictions are lifted.
Once collated, the evidence will be reviewed remotely by UKAS and discussed with the CAB’s relevant technical and quality staff during pre-arranged Q&A sessions. UKAS’s preferred platform is Microsoft Teams, but these sessions can be conducted via Skype, Zoom, GoToMeeting or possibly a CAB’s own web-conferencing system. Although this can fragment the assessment process, the overall time and resources devoted by UKAS and CABs should remain similar. Many CABs may find the staggered approach of remote assessments is less intrusive and allows them to carry on with their day-to-day work while UKAS remotely reviews documents and records.
Inevitably, introducing any programme much sooner than originally anticipated proved challenging for both CABs and UKAS, but overall the experience has been a very positive one. By working closely with accredited organisations and taking their feedback on board, UKAS has been ironing out any creases, and introducing ongoing refinements to improve the effectiveness and experience of remote assessments for all.
National Grid Gas
One of the first organisations to experience remote accreditation assessments was National Grid Gas. Summarising his experience, Matthew Goldberg, Environmental Assurance Manager at National Grid Gas, commented: “Remote assessments really benefitted us as an organisation. Despite our initial impression, planning and compiling the documentation in advance involves no additional work as you are effectively just changing the timing around. If anything, it is a streamlined and more efficient method, as remote assessment has a lower overall impact on resources, with the added benefit of being able to fit it in around other work demands.”
Commenting on UKAS’s cooperative approach to each CAB’s circumstances, Goldberg said: “Security restrictions mean we’re very limited in what IT systems we can use, but UKAS was flexible enough to utilise our approved conferencing and document sharing systems.”
Looking to the future, Goldberg concluded: “From our experience we would warmly welcome the option of remote assessment when things get back to ‘normal’ and would certainly recommend it for other conformity assessment organisations.”
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