The moderator called it an "amazing and historic panel." It was the first time that four of the key voices in the debate over the future of the civil service had appeared on the same platform.

The voices were in harmony on some goals, such as reinvigorating public service and improving programs and services to citizens. But they were discordant on others, particularly the role of collective bargaining in federal agencies.

The panel discussion, before an audience of about 120 agency officials, union representatives and others last week, was timely.

Changes to pay and union rules at the departments of Defense and Homeland Security have roiled federal unions, and the unions have filed lawsuits to stop regulations that will roll back labor rights. The Bush administration plans to ask Congress soon to consider phasing out the General Schedule, which provides predictable raises to federal employees. The General Schedule would be replaced, perhaps by 2010, with a system that gives managers more discretion in setting salaries. Occupations, labor market conditions and more rigorous job ratings would determine annual raises, according to a preliminary plan drawn up by the administration.

On the panel were John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees; Clay Johnson III, deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget; Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union; and David M. Walker, head of the Government Accountability Office. They responded to questions and comments by Patricia McGinnis, president of the nonprofit Council for Excellence in Government, who focused much of the discussion on ideas and solutions that could address perceived problems facing the civil service. The forum was sponsored by the council and The Washington Post.

The group engaged in a broad discussion that cannot be easily summarized. The participants spoke of creating a government focused on performance and citizen service but staked out different approaches for transforming the civil service. As Johnson noted, "where we disagree is on how we get there."

Government-wide personnel change, however, appears inevitable. The question is when to move forward with an overhaul. The government, McGinnis suggested, is already "at a tipping point" because more than 50 percent of federal employees have, over the years, been exempted by Congress from all or large parts of civil service law.

Walker agreed that the time is right to overhaul the way the government pays and manages people, but he said agencies must first put in place systems that ensure employees will be treated fairly and protected from abuse. Agencies will need to validate their systems for evaluating employees and will need to ensure that employees can appeal disciplinary and other adverse actions to third parties, he said.

Kelley said it would be irresponsible to undertake government-wide change without first seeing how new rules at Defense and Homeland Security pan out and whether they win the backing of employees and managers. "The idea that we would not take a step back and learn from those things would be a huge mistake," she said.

In the short term, Kelley said, "it is unlikely, from NTEU's perspective, that there will be an agreement on moving forward."

Johnson said agencies should be permitted to overhaul their personnel systems when ready. The keys, he said, are that agencies clearly define what changes they are undertaking and take the time to properly implement changes.

"I don't believe there is anything to be learned by what goes on in DOD or DHS," Johnson said, adding that "every agency success is independent of every other agency success."

Gage said that shifting employees to a pay-for-performance system would undermine teamwork and that other administration proposals would undercut collective bargaining and due process for employees. "This isn't a reform for anything better; it is really trimming back the civil service," he said.

Walker suggested that successful change depends on a good plan, checks and balances and employee support. "As our mothers told us, it's not just what you do, but how you do it. The process matters. . . . If you don't have the right process, you will fight a two-front war, and in most circumstances, you don't win two-front wars."

E-mail: barrs@washpost.com