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The metric system is just around the corner.

The federal government will require the use of metric systems in its procurements, grants and other business-related activities beginning in September 1992. Are states and local governments ready to go metric?

Weights and measures may be ranked among the necessaries of life to every individual of human society. They enter into the economical arrangements and daily concerns of every family. They are necessary to every occupation of human industry.. . .

For years, there has been talk that the metric system will replace the traditional system of measurement used in the United States. The time is now: many American businesses already are using both systems or only the metric system. Metrics will affect more than the business world. Soon, the federal government will use the metric system in almost all of its dealings - September 30, 1992, has been established as the date by which all federal agencies will be required to use metric systems in procurements, grants and other business-related activities. Officials in local government eventually will have to come to terms with this different, although long-established method of measurement.

The measurement system used in the U.S. is known as the "English system." Through colonization and dominance of world commerce during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, England established its system of weights and measures in many parts of the world, including the American colonies. Other countries had different measurement systems, however. The need for a single, worldwide measurement system was recognized early, and in 1790 the metric system was created. At present, only three countries in the world do not, officially, use the metric system: Liberia, Myanam and the United States.

Many see the English system of measurement as an obstacle to American competitiveness and to the ability of the U.S. to improve its trade balances, especially as the country begins to compete with such international trading cartels as the European Community.

Concerned about the issue of world trade, the U.S. Congress in 1988 declared the metric system as a desired goal. Congress amended the Metric Conversion Act of 1975 (P.L. 94-168), declaring it to be national policy to

designate the metric system of

measurement as the preferred system;

to require that each federal agency, by

a date certain and to the extent

economically feasible by the end of

fiscal year 1992, use the metric system

of measurement in its procurements,

grants and other business related

activities, except to the extent that

such use is impractical or is likely to

cause significant inefficiencies or loss

of markets to U.S. firms....

The amendments required federal agencies to establish guidelines to carry out these policies. In addition, they required each agency to report annually to Congress on its actions to implement the metric system.

States and Locals Must Follow

Federal agencies vary in their progress toward the goal of metric conversion. Generally, an agency will first mandate use of both systems and then phase in the sole use of metrics. Eventually, most federal agencies will be using the metric system. Local officials will have to use metrics when submitting grant proposals, engineering reports and other material to federal agencies.

The modernized version of the metric system, as established by international agreement, is called the International System of Units, generally known as SI. Each quantity such as length or mass has its own unit of measurement - the meter and the gram, respectively-and no unit is used to express more than one quantity. Sl is a decimal-based measurement system, similar to our monetary system where units are related by a factor of 10. For each type of measurement the base unit remains the same and, if needed, a prefix is used. The most common prefixes are: * milli - one thousandth (1/1,000), * centi - one hundredth (1/1 00) and * kilo - one thousand times (x 1,000).

The English system is more confusing: a pound can mean either force, as the number of pounds required to break a rope, or weight, as in a pound of sugar; an ounce can mean either volume, as in the number of ounces in a quart, or weight, as the number of ounces in a pound. It also has a more complex structure, using different units and different factors for different amounts. For example, the terms "inch," "foot" and "mile" describe different lengths, and there are 12 inches in a foot and 5,280 feet in a mile. In contrast the metric system uses only the term "meter" for length and, when describing much larger or smaller amounts, combines it with different prefixes.

Some everyday metric translations from the English system are: * 1 gram equals about the weight of a

paper clip, * 100 grams is a little less than 1/4 pound, * 250 grams is a little more than 1/2

pound, * 1 kilogram is a little more than 2

pounds, * 1 meter is is a little more than a yard, * 1 kilometer (1,000 meters) is a little

more than 1/2 mile.

Temperature is recorded on the Celsius scale under the metric system. Here are several useful comparisons: * water freezes at 0 [degrees] rather than 32 [degrees] F, * a "warm" winter day is 10 [degrees] C rather than

50 [degrees] F, * a heat wave is 40 [degrees] C rather than 104 [degrees] F, * normal body temperature is 37 [degrees] C rather

than 98.6 [degrees] F, * water boils at 100 [degrees] C rather than 212 [degrees] F.

Thinking metric is easier for those who are just beginning to learn measurements; those who have grown up under the English system with its inches, feet, miles and pounds may feel as uncomfortable at the prospect of learning a new system as when they were forced to learn to use the microcomputer. Learning the metric system is at once complex, tedious and down-right scary, but fortunately, help exists: a single agency is coordinating all federal metric programs (see sidebar). An inexpensive set of conversion tables can aid one's switch to the metric system; these can be purchased from a variety of commercial firms. There are also handheld calculators that make conversions between the two systems.


The agency coordinating metric conversion for the federal government is the Office of Metric Programs, U.S. Department of Commerce. Metric conversion kits of two types are available from this office. One kit, prepared for the use of federal government offices, has extensive conversion information; the other, designed for industry, is more general. Write to:

The Office of Metric Conversion

U.S. Department of Commerce

Room 4845-H

Washington, DC 20230

The U.S. Metric Association (USMA), a nonprofit organization established in 1916, furnishes assistance to industry, education, government and consumers in securing metric data and in planning metric conversion. It coordinates with the U.S. Department of Education, state education agencies, schools and educators to expedite the metric training of students. It also assists the National Council for State Metrication (NCSM) to effect an efficient transition to metric system use. For publications and training material contact:

The U.S. Metric Association

10245 AndasolAvenue

Northridge, CA 91325


The not-for-profit American National Metric Council (ANMC) provides information for managing metric conversion, furnishing its members with metric information, planning and coordinating services and a liaison with the federal government.

The American National Metric Council

1735 North Lynn Street, Suite 950

Arlington, VA 22209-2022


The National Institute of Building Sciences has information on the use of the metric system in federal construction, which covers the law, usage, preparation of metric drawings and specifications, management and training.

The National Institute

of Building Sciences

1201 L Street, N.W., Suite 400

Washington, DC 20005


A wallet-size metric conversion card (GPO Stock No. 003-003-03090-1), ruler (GPO Stock No. 003-003-03089-9) and wall chart, "The Modernized Metric System" (GPO Stock No. 003-003-03096-1) are available for sale from:

The Superintendent of Documents

Washington, DC 20402-9325


Donald Levitan is a professor in the School of Management, Suffolk University, Boston. A member of the GFOA, he has served as an advisor on GFOA's Committee on Governmental Budgeting and Management.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Government Finance Officers Association
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:includes related article; US use of the metric system becomes a national policy
Author:Levitan, Donald
Publication:Government Finance Review
Date:Apr 1, 1992
Previous Article:Environmental legislation and the costs of compliance.
Next Article:Understanding current and advance refundings.

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