President Bush signed off yesterday on government-wide buyouts and early-outs. But that doesn't mean you should start lining up to try to get one.

Agencies will be directed to use buyout and early-retirement offers only when needed to reshape their workforces, officials said. That's a break with past practice, under which the incentives were offered to almost anyone when the government was downsizing.

Under the new approach, buyouts probably will be offered on a limited basis -- for instance, when there is a surplus of employees in a particular occupation or with certain skills. Buyouts could be used to encourage turnover among those surplus employees, and agencies could take advantage of the vacancies to hire people elsewhere in their operations.

The government-wide buyout and early-retirement provisions were tucked into legislation creating the Department of Homeland Security. Yesterday, Bush signed the measure and nominated Tom Ridge, his homeland security adviser, to be the department's secretary and Gordon England, the Navy secretary, to be Ridge's deputy.

The mere mention of buyouts and early-outs can set off a stampede akin to those at shopping malls the day after Thanksgiving. Late in their careers, many employees want one or both. In a buyout, the government pays up to $25,000 (before deductions) to those who volunteer to resign or retire. In an early-out, the normal age and service requirements for retirement are loosened.

"I don't know if I would say there should be any particular expectation," an administration official said. "The law makes these tools available to government agencies when they need them. It does not presuppose that they need them at any point in time. I don't think anyone should operate under any per se assumptions about where they will be needed and when."

Under the legislation, agencies are required to submit plans for using buyout authority to the Office of Personnel Management for approval. Each proposal must include an organizational chart showing how the agency would operate after the buyouts.

The buyout and early-retirement provisions were pushed by Sen. George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio), who won congressional approval for similar incentive programs at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base three years ago.

Although the buyout and early-out provisions apply across the government, they may be especially useful at the Department of Homeland Security in the next few years. With 22 agencies and more than 170,000 employees merging into the department, officials expect to find significant duplication of people in administrative and other overhead jobs. Rather than resort to layoffs, the department can offer buyouts as a way to move people out.

"Our objective is to spend less on administrators in offices and more on working agents in the field -- less on overhead and more on protecting our neighborhoods and borders and waters and skies from terrorists," Bush said yesterday.

Voinovich -- supported by Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii) -- also attached several other provisions to the homeland security bill that apply across the government. One of the most far-reaching could revamp the government's process for filling jobs.

Under current practice, managers are bound by the "rule of three" and may consider only the top three candidates, based on a point system intended to measure an applicant's qualifications. The rule has been faulted for excluding able candidates, especially people from outside the government.

The new law expands the pool of applicants that can be interviewed by giving agencies the choice of placing them in categories, such as "basically qualified," "highly qualified" and "superior." Applicants rated superior would be eligible for hiring.

In another important change, the law sets up the job of "chief human capital officer" in the government's 24 largest agencies. Known as CHCOs -- pronounced "cheek-ohs" -- these executives would be responsible for hiring, training and managing federal workforces.

"A CHCO helps guarantee that the principles of smart workforce management are part of the daily diet of government performance and the catalyst for long-term transformation," said Max Stier, president of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service.

Federal Diary Live Can't figure out which federal employee health plan is best for you? Thinking about switching plans?

Walton Francis, the principal author of Checkbook's Guide to Health Plans for Federal Employees, will take questions from federal employees and retirees about the 2003 enrollment season at noon tomorrow at www.washingtonpost.com. Please join us.

Stephen Barr's e-mail address is barrs@washpost.com.