Mayor Anthony A. Williams plans to reclassify about 900 mid-level managers in D.C. government so they could be fired without explanation if they do not do a good job, the mayor's boldest assault yet on what he views as a bloated city work force plagued by unmotivated and unskilled employees.

Under Williams's plan, the managers would be given raises to compensate for the removal of their job protection under civil service laws. Those who refuse to participate would be demoted from their managerial positions; those who accept the raises would be subject to increased scrutiny of their work -- and fired if Williams's administration deemed that work unacceptable.

Williams said that more than anything else he will do in office, the mid-level manager program -- along with his efforts to force D.C. agencies to compete with the private sector for city contracts -- would fundamentally change the way the 33,000-employee D.C. government does business.

"This is a tremendous opportunity to instill a sense of urgency and a need for change," Williams said. "This would allow us to create managers who will be motivated. If you do a good job, you get rewarded. If you don't do a good job, you get fired."

That attitude is in sharp contrast to that of Williams's predecessor, Marion Barry, who in 16 years as mayor ballooned the city payroll to create economic opportunities for minorities -- and build a political power base.

That's why Williams, who in his 10 months as mayor has preached repeatedly about the need to change the D.C. government's culture of inefficient excess, has come to be viewed with suspicion by some government workers. They, and other critics of the mayor in low-income areas where city jobs are viewed lustily, angrily recall how Williams axed 165 D.C. workers in 1997, when he was the city's chief financial officer.

The outcry over those firings has made the mayor and his staff reluctant to conduct another round of wholesale firings -- particularly when, under Williams's vision, the number of victims this time could be several times that of two years ago.

And so Williams, trying to avoid looking too callous, is giving the mid-level managers under his authority -- more than half the 1,500 career supervisors in D.C. government -- a chance to prove their worth before getting pink slips.

"We're trying to find a more humane way to fire people," one top Williams aide acknowledged.

Williams's plan to reclassify mid-level managers in public works, police, human services, motor vehicles and other departments is allowed under a 1997 D.C. personnel law. Council member Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3), who sponsored the legislation, said it is designed to "improve the accountability of managers in government . . . and to remove those managers if they are not performing."

The council must vote on the pay raise portion of Williams's plan.

Max Brown, the mayor's legal counsel, said the law "gives us the flexibility to hold these managers accountable for their performances and the performance of the people they supervise. It's a way to deal with people who do not perform . . . [and] gets at the issue of accountability."

Some council members say that they're all for greater accountability but worry that too much of the blame for dysfunctional parts of D.C. government is being directed at mid-level managers.

"In an ideal world, what the mayor is doing makes sense," said council member Kevin P. Chavous (D-Ward 7). "But you don't want to paint every mid-level manager with the same negative brush. There are a lot of good workers in the government who can live up to the performance standards if they receive the training. I want to make sure we have the training and resources to match the expectations that we're placing on these workers."

Council member Harold Brazil (D-At Large) seconded the notion that Williams's plan would have to be handled with sensitivity.

"The District should move toward excellence and accountability, but we still want to treat people fairly," Brazil said. "You can't just fire people for no reason. We need to flesh [this] out. . . . It can be harsh sometimes."

Meantime, Williams and Brown have met with senior union officials in recent weeks to discuss ways to improve the troubled relationship between D.C. workers and managers.

Williams said the talks are a prelude to discussions about what labor's role will be in the mayor's planned restructuring of D.C. contracting -- specifically, Williams's desire to save money by having several D.C. agencies compete with private firms for city contracts, a process known as "managed competition." Williams sees it as a way to make the government's efforts to clean parks, deliver internal mail and repair city vehicles more efficient.

Before D.C. employees would be asked to bid against private businesses for the work, they would be given additional training and the resources needed to compete, Williams said. If the city workers win the assignments and improve their productivity, they would receive salary increases through a program known as "gain-sharing"; if they do not win the contracts, they could lose their jobs.

"Managed competition will benefit the city because we will have productive, capable and high-performing workers producing better services at lower costs for the residents of the District," Williams said, adding that although it seems inevitable that some D.C. workers would lose their jobs in such a system, "my goal is not to reduce the number of workers or reduce workers' pay."

But David Schlein, national vice president of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents 4,500 D.C. government workers, said he and his workers are reluctant to embrace the mayor's vision for managed competition.

"We get a lot of mixed messages from his administration," Schlein said. "There has been no discussion or negotiations on managed competition [recently], and it's not clear to us what the mayor means by managed competition.

"I have yet to find anyone in the Williams administration who can give me a clear definition for managed competition," Schlein added. He said he is interested in offering residents better service delivery and helping to make the District run more smoothly, but for the moment, managed competition is "not something we're interested in."

Schlein said he would like to see "improved communications" between the mayor and labor leaders and said some rank-and-file workers view the mayor with "some distrust."

Said Joslyn N. Williams, president of the District branch of the AFL-CIO: "We are ready to work with the mayor in moving an agenda that will benefit residents and improve the quality of life in the District. . . . But we don't want to come to the table to talk about [just] one issue: managed competition."

Patterson cautioned that the city does not have enough data about the costs of service delivery to do an across-the-board managed-competition program that would be fair to D.C. workers.

"Managed competition can be an option, but it's not the first option," Patterson said. "We have not always been successful in contracting out."

So for now, Mayor Williams's focus is on mid-level managers, who as supervisors are not represented by unions.

Council member David Catania (R-At Large) said he supports the mayor's efforts on that front. "The mayor needs to have more authority over mid-level managers if he is going to be successful," Catania said. "He needs to have the ability to hire and fire his management team."

Williams was coy when asked whether he has a certain number in mind when it comes to trimming mid-level managers and who would pick up the duties of those ousted.

"In this business, you always have a bullpen," he said. "Some will make it, and some won't."