We often expect too much of our institutions.

Take federal agencies, for instance. One large bureaucracy often is charged with being complainant, investigator, judge, jury and enforcement officer.

It is difficult to be fair to all parties and do a good job in such varied tasks. And when the government itself is the object of government regultory scrutiny, a basic principle of even-handedness often is neglected.

There may be, in such instances, a very human tendency to bend the rules a bit when the problems are close to home.

Worthy of attention in this context is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency which has the responsibility for policing the Clean Water Act.

Last June 21, EPA officials summoned reporters to a briefing on a water cleanup deadline of July 1. "We must not reward the recalcitrant . . . "We are going after the big polluters," said assistant administrator Thomas Jorling.

He promised that EPA would file lawsuits against more than 300 major corporate plants and more than 100 cities for failures to comply with requirements on sewage treatment or discharges of solids and organic matter into waterways. Altogether, some 600 plants and 2,000 municipalities were said to be in violation.

Jorling said EPA would seek fines of up to $10 million per company and $2 million or more for cities law as described by one EPA man as a "drastic" step up of water pollution enforcement.

News accounts were written that day, big business got another black swimming water, the National League of Cities expressed shock that local governments were being subjected to "arbitrary deadlines" and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said the Carter administration was "posturing a bit . . . by and large, industries have done a damn good job."

But that's not where the story ends, because what EPA failed to disclose on June 21 was the name of the biggest polluter of them all, the government of the United States of America. And, in an economy increasingly dominated by services rather than manufacturing government is indeed big business.

By conservative estimate, 25 percent of all federal facilities in the country failed to comply by July 1 with antipollution regulations designed to develop and maintain clean water. Most of the violations are said to involve the dumping of human waste, but none of these agencies has been threatened with lawsuits or other government sanction.

The EPA's apparent double standard has been detailed by John-Robinson, associate director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's environmental affairs division. He compiled data from reports by regional EPA offices, showing federal violators.

As a list, there's something for everybody. If your interest is the local angle, for example, facilities now pollyting your waterways include Quantico Marine Base, the Navy Yard in Washington, and Forts Lee and Belvoir in Virginia.

Other facilities include Yosemite National Park. 12 Bureau of Reclamation power plants in Wyoming, an atomic energy plant in South Carolina, and Ft. Bearing. Ga.

In Illinois alone, 14 of 38 federal facilities violate the standards. For a six-state Midwest region that also includes Indiana, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota, 92 of 185 federal establishments fail to comply with current rules.

A: Chanute Air Force Base, 125 miles south of Chicago, Salt Fork Creek is polluted by sewage from a base population of 13,000 whose waste is processed at a treatment plant built in 1942 for a population of 5,000.

On July 1, the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis was in violation, but a new sewage treatment facility there restored the Navy's honor by July 28.

At Quantico, a waste treatment plant has been completed and now is being tested for possible compliance by the end of the month. Ft. Belvoir proposes to hook up with a Fairfax County treatment plant now being built. Ft. Lee hopes to connect with a Hopewell plant that is nearly completed - although a dispute over minimum wage requirements of the Army has delayed construction of a connecting pipeline.

At the Navy Yard here, officials said other pollution requirements have greater priority. They have proposed a new treatment connection by 1980. EPA advised the Navy Yard by letter that the Clean Water Act requires greater attention and asked for a schedule of compliance. "Industry does not deserve a privilege of polluting the environment but neither should the federal government," Robinson says. "The federal government should be the first to meet its own standards."

If federal planners have to allocate billions of taxpayers' dollars to built new sewage facilities and other water control plants across the nation, to reach compliance with 1977 standards, other programs must be curtailed.

Some federal facilities might even have to be shut down as not worthy of the new outlays for upgraded sewage treatment. But federal compliance to date has consisted of telephone calls and letters from EPA. "Industry wishes it enjoyed the same defence," says the Chamber's Robinson.

Unquestionably, the federal government faces a tough issue. But some 99 per cent of industry, by the government's own reports, complied with the July 1 deadline at a cost of untold billions from the economy's private sector.

Today's business is embarked on programs for meeting tougher 1983 standards at a cost estimated to be ten times that of the previous for all the while questioning whether the next advances in water purity are worth that much money. But will the federal government clean up its own act?