Federal agencies should hold "town hall" meetings with employees to discuss contingency plans for dealing with terrorist attacks and other emergencies, according to the president's top civil service adviser.

"In these times, the concern of federal employees is understandable," Kay Coles James, director of the Office of Personnel Management, said in a memo this week to agency heads. "Often, this concern can be addressed by informing our workforce of the contingency plans in place for their safety and protection."

James added, "Please be aware that, from the calls we are receiving, this communication may not be happening consistently throughout government."

Last week, James published two manuals on the OPM Web site (www.opm.gov/emergency) that provide general guidelines for dealing with an accidental or intentional release of chemical, biological or radiological material. The manuals were based on the advice of 23 experts from 16 agencies.

Yesterday, OPM officials met with members of the Human Resources Management Council, an interagency group of top federal personnel officials, to discuss the new manuals. OPM officials passed around an emergency kit -- containing light sticks, food, water, towels and a whistle -- that has been developed by OPM for its employees, an OPM spokesman said.

The meeting and James's memo represent a series of steps to highlight contingency planning. "We are trying to focus on providing as many ideas as possible across the government," the OPM spokesman said.

Employees in some agencies have complained that their bosses shrug off questions about contingency planning for terrorist attacks; others say their agencies have not done a good enough job explaining what steps they will take, and employees should take, in the event of a catastrophic event.

In her memo, James reminded agency heads that "you are ultimately responsible for the health and safety of your workforce and all appropriate contingency plans."

At a minimum, James said, agencies should maintain up-to-date emergency plans, have conducted "threat assessments" with the help of law enforcement officers, be holding regular evacuation drills and shelter-in-place exercises, and have distributed emergency guides.

James said agencies need to effectively communicate with employees on possible threats by holding town hall meetings and by using e-mail and other methods to provide information updates. In addition, agencies should know how to contact senior executives during an emergency, she said.

She also recommends that agencies test fire alarms and public address systems, check whether ventilation systems can be cut off, put up signs for evacuation routes and ensure that security personnel maintain communication through walkie-talkies, cell phones and pagers.

"Truly, these are weighty and difficult times for the federal workforce," James said in closing her memo. She asked the agency heads to report back to her by April 1 "on your progress in the completion of these minimum safety requirements."

OMB Seeking Budget Increase

The Office of Management and Budget is strapped for cash, it appears.

OMB Director Mitchell E. Daniels Jr. appeared before a House Appropriations subcommittee yesterday to ask for a funding increase, the first on his watch.

If OMB's budget is held flat in 2004, Daniels will be forced to cut the OMB staff by 39 positions, according to his prepared statement. The White House budget office has 491 employees and authority to fill 510 positions.

Daniels hopes to expand the staff by about a half-dozen and undertake some program improvements if Congress boosts his budget.

OMB is seeking to grow its budget from $71 million to $77 million -- a 9 percent increase. Democrats on the House transportation, treasury and general government subcommittee pointed out that the requested increase is more than the average 4 percent spending increase the White House recommended for other agencies.

Daniels defended the request, saying the OMB staff has been "doing more with less" even as it took on added work.

Stephen Barr's e-mail address is

barrs@washpost.com.