Donald J. Devine, the director of the Office of Personnel Management, has skin thicker than a rhino.

Since assuming the job as guardian of the merit system, the former University of Maryland professor has slugged it out orally with members of Congress who complain they don't get no respect.

Devine's proposals to make the federal pay and retirement systems less liberal have drawn barbs from some federal unions, federal workers and federal writers.

Legislators, reporters and others familiar with Capitol Hill say they have rarely encountered a more combative political appointee.

Some people think that Devine enjoys the fights. Indeed, he seems to rejoice in criticism when it comes from those he regards as the wrong people, that is wimps mired in the wrong philosophy or persons wedded to the status quo.

Because of the changes he proposes, and the style in which he proposes them, Devine gets lots of flak in this town. "I know people have to take shots at me, I accept that," he said, "I understand and I don't complain."

Except last week. He called to complain about the Sept. 11 column. It was about a General Accounting Office study of OPM since Devine took over.

The report said that OPM reorganizations and layoffs had disrupted services, cost a lot of money, and that transfers of key staffers had deprived OPM and its clients of expertise and insitutional memory in some areas.

Devine thought the items this column picked from the report accentuated the negative, and eliminated the positive.

He said the layoffs were the result of budget cuts from Congress, and that the agency's decision to furlough most Washington staffers for six days was made in lieu of more firings.

The shakeups of the top staff, he said, were done because "some people had grown stale" in their jobs. And, he said, the report did not mention that the "huge backlog" of retirement actions that he inherited had been cut by two-thirds, and is now "at normal" levels.

"They [the GAO] came in here with preconceived notions but they found that things are running well," Devine said.

"On balance I think it was a very positive report. . . . There were unfavorable comments from some personnel directors they GAO interviewed, but there were more favorable comments from the directors." While some agencies complained that OPM has cut back services to them in some areas, others said OPM's back-to-basics approach has given them more authority in hiring and personnel actions.

The GAO report said that because of the OPMs new methods "agencies are now more on their own and cannot count on, and do not receive, as much OPM advice and assistance as they did in prior years." On the other hand, it said that OPM is "now devoting increased attention to some personnel areas such as administration of the retirement and health benefits."

GAO finished by saying that while it is too soon to determine whether OPM's new look is an improvement, "we are concerned about the possible implications and potential impact of retrenchment and redistribution at OPM."

To which Devine adds: "I think that if you ask any objective observer if this agency is better managed now than it was three years ago, they will tell you it is much better run today."