The president's top civil service adviser, citing significant changes in how the government does business three years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, urged more than 2,000 federal personnel experts Wednesday to embrace efforts to overhaul how agencies hire, promote and pay their employees.

Transforming the civil service will take personnel specialists who are "inspired to press on," Kay Coles James, director of the Office of Personnel Management, said at the opening of the 2004 Federal Workforce Conference at the Baltimore Convention Center.

James added that overhauling federal pay and workplace rules "is not easy stuff" -- an observation that was reinforced during an afternoon panel discussion that laid out starkly contrasting views held by a major union on one side and officials from the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security on the other.

Both agencies are preparing plans to link worker pay raises to job performance. The agencies also are on track to revamp how they deal with unions and discipline employees.

Brian DeWyngaert, executive assistant to the president of the American Federation of Government Employees, claimed that the two departments are creating personnel systems that will be "anti-front-line employee." Furthermore, he said, budget constraints and inadequate funding will probably mean that future pay raises are not as generous as current ones.

The AFGE official also argued that the departments are moving to undercut unions and curb their role in the workplace. "This is absolutely a frontal assault on all employees in the government," he charged.

Administration officials -- Mary E. Lacey of the Defense Department, Melissa Allen of Homeland Security and George Nesterczuk of the Office of Personnel Management -- tried to avoid a point-by-point debate over the overhaul plans. They emphasized the various techniques, such as engaging employees in "town hall" meetings and working groups, being used to design the new systems.

But Lacey, in response to a question, said she took exception to some of DeWyngaert's comments, such as his contention that the Pentagon would not respect employee rights in a new personnel system. "Due process is guaranteed, and we intend to uphold that," Lacey said.

The Bush administration and federal unions continue to meet on the proposed changes at the two departments, but administration officials made clear Wednesday that they intend to go ahead with regulations in coming months.

Union leaders -- most are throwing their support behind Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry -- argue that Bush appointees have made up their minds on how to revamp pay and personnel rules at the departments and that their consultations with labor leaders amount to only "window dressing," as DeWyngaert put it.

Ronald P. Sanders, an associate director at OPM, told the conference Wednesday that James is committed to a collaborative approach when it comes to redesigning systems at Defense and Homeland Security. "That is not a sham, folks," he said.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Congress has authorized new methods for hiring federal employees, created a pay-for-performance system for federal executives and established an interagency council for personnel policy.

In her keynote speech, James called the changes "unbelievable" and joked that "you would have laughed yourself silly" if the Bush administration had proposed performance-based pay, faster hiring and streamlined practices upon taking office. But, she said, such changes -- long recommended by numerous civil service experts -- are now being propelled by the need to respond decisively to what happened on Sept. 11, 2001.

Representatives from 70 federal agencies are attending the workforce conference, the first time that OPM has pulled together a string of smaller meetings to create what officials called a "superconference" on federal personnel policies and benefits.

E-mail: barrs@washpost.com