The Defense Department has given its civil service employees a look at where they will fit into a new performance-based pay system when the Pentagon opts out of the General Schedule, a decades-old system known for providing predictable pay raises to white-collar federal employees.

The new National Security Personnel System (NSPS) would split Defense white-collar civilians into four major career groups, place them in "pay bands," which are broad salary scales, and use numerical scores to rate their job performance.

The department posted directives about the pay system on a Defense Web site without fanfare before the Thanksgiving holiday. The directives can be found at www.cpms.osd.mil/nsps and are stamped "draft" because they may be modified after discussions with union representatives.

Defense civil service employees have been eager to learn where they would land in the new system. In the transition to the NSPS, officials have promised that no employee would take a pay cut and that some might get a boost in pay.

The implementation -- and employee acceptance -- of the Defense pay plan is being closely watched on Capitol Hill and inside the Bush administration. The administration has proposed setting up performance-based pay systems for all federal employees, and the Office of Management and Budget has posted a plan (at www.results.gov) that would abolish the General Schedule by 2010.

The directives released by the Pentagon apply only to Defense white-collar, civil service employees. Plans to convert Defense blue-collar employees to the new pay system have not been completed.

Under the directives, Defense white-collar employees would be split into four career groups: standard (lawyers, accountants, budget analysts and other professional and administrative occupations); scientific and engineering; investigative and protective services; and medical. The standard career group would be the largest, covering 71 percent of the department's white-collar employees.

The employees would be placed into pay bands based on the nature of their work and job skills. The use of pay bands would make it easier for managers to assign new or different work to employees, and would give employees a better chance to broaden their skills and advance in their careers, officials have said.

Defense employees in the "standard career group," for example, would fall into three "pay schedules": professional/analytical, technician/support and supervisor/manager.

Each pay schedule would have three salary bands. A professional employee, for example, could be placed in band one, which would be equivalent to the GS 5 to 8; band two, GS 9 to 13, or band 3, GS 14 and 15. Base pay, not including locality supplements, would range from a low of $24,677 in band one to a high of $122,343 in band three (about 5 percent higher than what a GS-15, step 10, earns in base pay today).

Pay raises would have three parts -- a nationwide increase that may vary by pay band, locality increases based on geographic or labor market conditions, and an increase based on job performance ratings.

Employees rated as "fair" -- the lowest acceptable level of job performance -- would be eligible for pay band and locality raises. Employees rated as providing "valued performance" or higher would be eligible for a performance-based raise. Employees at the top of their pay bands would get a bonus in lieu of a performance raise.

Defense plans to post the definitions of the rating levels within the next few days, a Defense spokeswoman said.

Union officials have expressed concern that the Pentagon would fall short in developing a pay and performance system that is seen as fair and credible by employees. In testimony prepared for a Nov. 17 Senate hearing, unions questioned whether Defense could develop a methodology to justify raises that vary because of location or occupation. The Pentagon plans to start the system using the government-wide locality pay system developed at the Office of Personnel Management to allow time for a smooth transition to the NSPS, the Defense spokeswoman said.

The launch of the new Defense civil service personnel system, in the planning stages for the past two years, is tentatively scheduled for February. The start, however, could be delayed by litigation. A coalition of unions has filed suit to stop proposals that would allow the NSPS to curb union rights and modify procedures used by employees when they appeal disciplinary actions. A court hearing has been set for Jan. 24.

E-mail: barrs@washpost.com