One prominent critic says Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's plan to revamp the department's personnel system tramples veterans' rights, offers a bad model for changing federal pay and represents a strategic blunder in the attempt to modernize the federal civil service government-wide.

The critic is not some union leader or razor-tongued analyst. She is the Bush administration's own human resources guru: Kay Coles James, director of the Office of Personnel Management.

In a March 9 letter to Rumsfeld, James skewered many parts of the proposal to rewrite work rules governing nearly 750,000 civilian Department of Defense workers and suggested ways that Defense -- with OPM's help -- might improve the proposed National Security Personnel System.

"Failure to execute correctly could undermine everything we are trying to achieve with NSPS," James wrote of the department's approach.

About a month later, Defense officials announced they would slow down and roll the new system out in stages, with more time for evaluation by experts and feedback from employees. They pledged to assuage lawmakers' concerns that the department was not including OPM as a partner, as required by law. Rumsfeld asked Navy Secretary Gordon R. England to take the lead role on the proposal for DOD.

Capt. Kevin Wensing, England's spokesman, said Friday that James's letter was not the only catalyst for such changes but that "it was part of the soup."

"It came in in that March time frame when we were looking at [the proposal] and going, 'Wow, this is very complex. We need to engage more people as we move ahead,' " Wensing said. "I don't think it was one particular thing."

Wensing said OPM would have an important role to play "because, after all, they're OPM. They live and breathe all the personnel stuff for the entire federal government."

George Nesterczuk, a senior adviser to James for Defense Department personnel issues, said his boss wrote the letter in response to a DOD request for OPM's comments on its plan. OPM also provided 36 pages of detailed remarks on the plan.

"We wanted to alert the secretary to the effect that, down at the staff level, they were preparing some documents that we didn't think served the department very well," Nesterczuk said. "I guess what you are getting is confirmation that after the letter they did elevate the debate."

Despite opposition from federal unions, Rumsfeld won authority from Congress last year to rewrite the department's personnel rules. He argued that managers needed more freedom over the pay, discipline and deployment of civilian workers in fighting the war on terrorism.

Full details of the department's proposals have not been made public. But in February, a 13-page DOD memo on labor relations "concepts" angered union leaders, who said the changes would eliminate third-party review of labor disputes and meaningful collective bargaining over work rules. Five senators wrote DOD in March urging officials to pursue a design process that was fair, transparent and inclusive of OPM and employee union views.

James's critique sounded notes that both pleased and angered representatives of defense employees. For instance, she warned that the DOD plan diminishes hiring preferences and other protections for veterans and may go too far in replacing collective bargaining with union "consultation."

However, she criticized its proposed pay system as too similar to the General Schedule, a framework that many union leaders support, but which James called "a scheme we all know to be outdated as too timid and obsolete." She also advised Rumsfeld to publish general parameters of the new system in the Federal Register for public view, then privately tailor the details to departmental needs later.

The draft she saw was "excessive and unnecessary" in its detail, she wrote. "By law, each time DoD needs to modify its content in any substantive way, it will be required to invoke the statutory union notification and collaboration process, obtain formal OPM approval and notify Congress," she wrote. "Surely this is not the result you intended; it certainly is not what we envisioned when we fought for NSPS."

Federal union officials said such language revealed that James's talk of working with unions was just lip service.

"It reconfirms the administration's intent to kill unions through the NSPS process," said Matthew S. Biggs, a spokesman for the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, which represents about 20,000 workers at DOD.

"And it's even more alarming that OPM is coaching the Defense Department on how to skirt Congress, as well as the labor unions, in doing so," he said.

Nesterczuk dismissed such concerns, saying James's intervention has made the design process more open, not less.

"The process that's in play right now is one of outreach and setting up plans to collaborate with the unions and reaching out to employee organizations," he said. "So it's pretty much a different world now."

Kay Coles James, Office of Personnel Management director, drew a mixed reaction from labor for her critique.