Why ‘first come first served’ is not fair

Line up of people

This is about events, giveaways and other limited events. I am not talking about an ongoing service with limited capacity for which there is a waiting list that everyone ends up on.

The problem

First come first served is seen as fair because everyone has an equal opportunity to apply. There is an underlying assumption that those who care the most will respond the fastest. In fact it systematically discriminates against some people while favouring others. First-come-first-served favours those who have time, money, freedom and independence. It disadvantages those who are poor, disabled, or carers.

People who are good at paperworkPeople who have difficulty with literacy or communication
People with enough money that they know they can pay for it.People who have to budget very tightly and think hard about what to give up if they are going to get/do something
People who have the freedom to take holidays from work and/or caring responsibilities.People who have complex responsibilities for care of or work for others, and those who lack paid holidays in their work.
People who have social support who can cover their responsibilities (pets, home, children, etc.)People who lack social support.
People who know they can get to most places or will be able to figure out how.People who lack reliable transport, need specialist transport, need to book assistance, or need someone to travel with them.
People who can respond for themselves.People who need assistance to make decisions or respond and may have to wait for that assistance to be available.
People who have social connections to hear about opportunities quicklyPeople who are socially isolated and need to find out things for themselves
People who have ample free time to notice and respond to opportunities when they come upPeople who have complex or busy lives with little leisure time.

In other words, it favours those who usually already have a lot of other privileges going for them.

I and my children have missed out on dozens, possibly even hundreds, of opportunities because they operate on a first come first served basis and we are not the quickest to respond. We are seldom the quickest to respond. I need support workers to help with understanding letters, making decisions, organising my calendar and completing paperwork like application forms. Aside from that, I am a student, I work on many projects (including voluntary work) and care for several disabled family members. Even if I am able to respond, I often don’t see the opportunity before it is gone.

When I have been brave enough to complain about this (usually unintentionally) discriminatory practice, I am invariably told that it’s the only fair way. But it’s not fair. Anything that systematically disadvantages the same people is, by definition, not fair. Most importantly, using the same system all the time persistently and systematically favours the same people for opportunities every time.

But what else can we do?

Yes, first come first served is the easy way to fill spaces for something. You know how many spaces you have and you know when they’re full. Any alternative will be more work for the organisers, and as an event organiser, I am sympathetic to this problem. But being fair can be done systematically with only a little additional effort. This is a reasonable adjustment for the many disabled people disadvantaged by the conventional system who may not even realise that they are disadvantaged or that adjustments are possible.

Random draw

First, set a deadline that still gives you plenty of time to do your part of the job – bookings, making arrangements, planning lessons, booking transport, or whatever it is. Then open bookings ahead of that. I recommend at least a week ahead so that those with weekly support have a chance, but the exact time will depend on your specific circumstances. Take all the submissions up to the deadline you set. On that deadline, if you are oversubscribed, randomly draw from all the applications you have.

If it’s really important for people to know whether they have a space as soon as possible, e.g. if they have to book transport, this system can be repeated at intervals in the run-up to the event or as long as there are still opportunities available.

Fair waiting lists

Whether you do initial applications in this way or not, you can also organise waiting lists more fairly. Instead of placing people on waiting lists in the order in which they applied, put everyone in a waiting pool. Whenever a place comes up, draw randomly from the waiting pool.

Other systems

Fair doesn’t always mean that everyone has an equal chance every time. Sometimes it’s fair to give advantages to certain groups. In these circumstances, there may be other fair ways of allocating other than random, e.g.

  • People who have never had this opportunity before
  • People who missed out last time
  • People who will have the fewest opportunities in future (E.g. those who will be ageing out of the group

These methods should still use some kind of deadline and pooling system so that all those who need assistance have a chance to apply and be considered. And again, of you are oversubscribed by whatever criteria they can be drawn at random.

So, when you are organising an event or opportunity, consider whether you really have to allocate all the spaces as quickly as possible, or whether it would be possible for you to set a deadline in the future and consider everyone who applies by then on an equal basis. This will increase fairness for those who need time or assistance in order to apply while not adding disadvantage for others.

Karen L Buckle

I am a PhD student studying autistic inertia. I am interested in this topic because I suffer from these problems and because I know that they are common and seriously problematic for a lot of autistic people. If you are interested in being kept up to date on my research, including participation opportunities and updates on findings, leave a comment or email me at karenleneh.buckle@postgrad.manchester.ac.uk.


1 Response

  1. Thank you. I have often been frustrated with missing opportunities do to my complex life which includes limited support. I appreciate the suggestions on how to move away from “First Come First Served” mentality.

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