At the Office of Management and Budget, Clay Johnson III answers, "for sure," when asked if federal employees are better off now than they were four years ago.

The Bush administration is making strides in getting the right people in the right jobs, in training managers to be better managers of people and programs and in communicating expectations to employees, Johnson said.

Johnson, OMB deputy director for management and a friend of President Bush, said he believes the president's management agenda, published in August 2001, is improving accountability across the government. "The major side benefit is that it makes agencies better places to work," Johnson said.

His sense that federal employees are better off comes from feedback he has received at focus group meetings with managers and executives at 10 agencies, he said.

"Forget what I say. What employees tell us is that the vast majority of them are here for the public service element. Yes, they want to grow professionally but in a public service arena," Johnson said.

As Republicans gather in New York to nominate Bush for a second term, his appointees are engaged in one of the largest governmental restructuring efforts seen in the past 20 years. Planning is underway to overhaul pay and personnel rules in two large departments -- Defense and Homeland Security -- and it appears likely that the CIA, FBI and other parts of the intelligence community also will undergo substantial reorganizations.

Administration officials hope to launch the Defense and Homeland Security workforce changes next year and put the government on a path to more rigorous, performance-based pay systems. Many management experts, however, caution that it will take years to pull off such transformations, in part because the government has an uneven record in developing systems that link pay to performance.

The success of Bush's efforts likely will hinge on whether the pay and personnel changes are seen as credible by employees.

Federal unions have moved aggressively to shape employee perceptions. Federal labor leaders have attacked White House requirements that agencies put certain federal jobs up for bid in the private sector. The labor leaders also are fighting administration proposals that would restrict union activities at the departments of Defense and Homeland Security.

"We are in a battle not only to save federal jobs but to . . . ensure that federal employees get the respect and resources they deserve," Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said at a pre-convention rally in New York.

Paul C. Light, a New York University professor who has studied how past administrations have managed the federal workforce, calls Bush a "mixed blessing" for federal employees.

Bush has not pushed for a "deep downsizing" of the government and in some agencies is increasing the number of federal employees, Light said. Bush also has not been able to limit federal pay raises because Congress, as it has in the past, chooses to provide more generous annual increases, he said.

But, Light said, if "federal employees have done okay" under Bush, "they could have done a lot better with a strong, positive message from the White House on the civil service role in homeland security. Bush could have talked much more aggressively about how civilians are engaged in the war on terrorism."

Bush praises the military in speeches but rarely talks in positive ways about the civil service, Light said.

Johnson said Bush expresses his appreciation for the armed forces because "they like what he is doing." On the civil service side, Bush faces union opposition to his policies, "and maybe that has some influence on it," Johnson said.

A draft of the Republican Party platform for Bush's nominating convention includes a salute to the military and to homeland security employees. It also affirms the party's support for Bush's federal management priorities.

Johnson said the administration has tried to keep politics out of the president's management agenda.

In writing a recent OMB report on Bush's management priorities, Johnson said, "We tried to make it an apolitical document. . . . Not an administration bragging about what it has done, but federal employees reflecting on what they and we are in the process of doing."

E-mail: barrs@washpost.com