President Clinton will issue an executive order today that makes it easier for the federal government to hire people with psychiatric disabilities, officials at the Office of Personnel Management said yesterday.

The executive order will change decades-old civil service rules to give persons with psychiatric problems the same employment opportunities currently provided to persons with severe physical disabilities or mental retardation, the officials said.

Today's announcement comes just days before the White House convenes a conference on mental health to be chaired by Tipper Gore, the vice president's spouse, and follows the recommendations of the administration's Task Force on Employment of Adults with Disabilities.

Currently, federal agencies may use a special hiring authority to offer temporary jobs to persons with psychiatric problems. But those jobs end after two years, usually forcing the employees to leave the government or face competition from other job-seekers when reapplying for federal employment.

The executive order will give agencies the authority to allow persons with psychiatric disabilities to stay in their jobs and join the civil service as permanent employees if they carry out their duties successfully.

Officials said the rule change would "level the playing field," since the rules already permit agencies to use the special hiring authority to permanently hire persons with physical disabilities or mental retardation.

In virtually all cases, the officials said, the initial, two-year appointment would serve as a screening period and allow persons with psychiatric disabilities to demonstrate that they can control their emotional or mental difficulties.

Officials said that when the hiring rules were created more than 20 years ago, attitudes about mental illness were different, resulting in different standards being applied to persons with psychiatric disabilities.

"I believe that by eliminating these hurdles, we will go a long way toward eradicating the stigma associated with mental illness. Our nation can only benefit when all people are given a chance to contribute," OPM Director Janice R. Lachance said in a statement prepared for today's announcement.

Last year, 124,139 executive branch employees voluntarily identified themselves as either physically or mentally disabled--about 7 percent of the government's work force.

Clinton's executive order will direct OPM to draft regulations and allow for a period of public comment before they are issued. OPM officials said they plan to move quickly, once Clinton has signed the order.