Keep the rule of three

I'm puzzled as to why the Merit Systems Protection Board is criticizing a hiring procedure that ensures at least some fairness in how federal workers are chosen for a job.

Among the most visible changes affecting how the federal government recruits and selects new employees is the decentralization of authority and responsibility from the Office of Personnel Management to individual departments and agencies.

One key provision of employment law has been unchanged for more than 50 years. This is the "rule of three," which requires managers to select new hires from among the top three available candidates referred to them by an examining office. Selecting officials must choose from the top three candidates, even if there is very little difference among several candidates at the top of the list.

The MSPB says that officials sometimes have to make fine distinctions among a large group of well-qualified applicants and questions the continued use of the rule of three. "We don't have a selection process that is so precise that it can identify the best three people out of a pool of 200," said John Palguta, director of policy and evaluation at the MSPB. "For the rule of three to work, it would require that we have a scientific [hiring] process that simply doesn't exist."

Why is the MSPB going after the rule of three? The MSPB report that criticizes this rule states, "Although conventional wisdom suggests that managers' choices in hiring are almost always limited by the rule of three, we did not find this to be the case. Often the rule of three is not even a factor in managers' hiring choices. In more than one-third of the case-examining certificates we reviewed, and for more than one-sixth of the register certificates, the rule did not exclude any candidates because fewer than three qualified candidates were identified by the procedure."

So what's the problem? The rule of three places a constraint on the latitude provided to selecting officials over hiring decisions. Without the rule of three, a selecting official could hire anyone referred to him or her as being "qualified." How would that further the goals of the merit staffing process? And if someone didn't get a job he applied for, on what basis could he appeal if there was no rule of three?

In my experience, many jobs are filled with individuals who aren't the best qualified. But at least selecting officials must hire someone in the top three candidates referred to them. Sure, plenty of those hires are "pre-selected," but job applicants should have a chance at a job they're qualified for. And the rule of three gives them that chance.

It's not surprising that the MSPB wants to take that chance away. I've never considered the MSPB a friend of feds and this proves it.

Zall is a retired federal employee who since 1987 has written the Bureaucratus column for Federal Computer Week. He can be reached at


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