"Competitive sourcing" is a tortuous affair.

The initiative, one of President Bush's top management priorities and part of his budget plan, directs agencies to determine whether more federal work can be turned over to the private sector.

It requires political appointees to master a rule-heavy process. It targets federal jobs that are defined as "commercial" in nature -- a move that has roiled the federal workforce. It goes against federal unions, which see themselves as protectors of federal jobs, pay and benefits.

Take the relatively small Office of Justice Programs at the Justice Department as an example. OJP, as it is called, sends almost $4 billion in grants to state and local governments, administers a local law enforcement block grant program and publishes a popular -- and politically sensitive -- annual statistical report that shows whether crime is going up or down in America.

OJP has about 700 employees, mostly white-collar professionals. About 600 hold jobs that might be performed by contractors under the rules defining commercial activities. To get its competitive sourcing initiative started, the administration's budget target requires that for this fiscal year, 328 jobs should be put up for competition with the private sector.

The Justice agency started down that road last autumn but called a temporary halt in January when employees pointed out that the agency does not know what it costs to do its work now. Officials agreed, and OJP has embarked on a study known as "activity-based costing." The study will determine the cost of doing the work and how those costs relate to products and services.

The results of the cost analysis will determine how OJP moves forward with its competitive sourcing effort. Officials hope to wrap up the cost study by summer and, if appropriate, move on to the competition stage and complete it within a year.

To steer OJP through the data gathering and analysis, agency officials have brought in a contractor. OJP has "allocated less than $1 million" for the contractor, an agency official said. Meanwhile, OJP has set up teams, staffed by a dozen employees, to work on competitive sourcing.

Swirling around all this is a reorganization of OJP, which was requested by Congress to eliminate duplication and overlap in grant programs but probably won't be finished for two more years. (This fiscal year, Congress cut money for OJP research and some OJP programs, such as financial aid to states for jailing illegal immigrants and juvenile delinquency prevention.)

Some OJP employees think that the Bush administration intends to use the reorganization to justify contracting out agency work. Under the reorganization, employees contend, OJP will strip authority from program managers who oversee grants and put a small group of top agency officials in control of decisions. Once the professional staff has been pushed to the sidelines, OJP can argue that grant administration can be performed by outsiders and take away their jobs.

Stu Smith, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees local at OJP, said: "They want to take decisions that are made on behalf of the government and say nongovernment employees can make those decisions. That is not good government." If OJP's plan goes forward, Smith said, "we will be in a situation where contractors will do what political appointees want, and you won't have a neutral civil service."

Deborah J. Daniels, the assistant attorney general for OJP, acknowledged that employees "are skeptical of our motives." She promised that any competitive process will give OJP employees a fair shake and said she believes that the initiative will help the agency identify more efficient ways of doing business.

Part of the employee skepticism stems from her family ties: She is the younger sister of Mitchell E. Daniels Jr., who heads the White House Office of Management and Budget and oversees the president's management agenda. Deborah Daniels discounts that connection -- "I don't think I have ever talked to Mitch about this" -- and points to Stephen Goldsmith, the former Indianapolis mayor who introduced competition into that city's services, as someone who has influenced her views on competitive sourcing.

"This country is founded on competition and market principles," Daniels said. "Anytime you inject competition in the process, you end up improving on it."

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