When one official of a federal agency wanted to fire a clerk-typist he said was tardy for work every day, it took 21 months, scores of boxes of documentation and a procedure that filled a 21-foot-long chart -- and the clerk eventually resigned rather than filing still another appeal.

In the Labor Department, another new official learned that a department was just not producing because of an incompetant manager.The only way to change that situation was to completely reorganize the section into another division, putting the allegedly incompetant manager under a new boss, who would assume actual operating control of the department.

Layering -- the process of adding another manager on top of an existing one -- is sometimes the only way a new government executive can effectively improve his operation.

The above incidents illustrate the problems facing the Civil Service Commission, which has regulated the federal government personnel system since 1883, when Congress passed a civil service law in an attempt to trim the spoils system used by presidents to pay off campaign workers with jobs after election.

Many of the long, often tedious, procedures involved in hiring or trying to fire a civil servant are the direct result of years of efforts to depoliticize basic government operations -- to protect the federal employe against the whim of a politician who might want to put a friend in a job, or make the government work for one person, or administration, instead of the people.

President Carter came to Washington as an outsider with plans to reorganize the government and to try to restructure the operations to allow new managers to economize and eliminate waste, yet still provide basic protection against politically motivated personnel actions. Although he may have lost some public confidence over his apparently politically motivated firing of Philadelphia U.S. Attorney David Marston, Carter is about to come back with the most comprehensive and far-reaching effort to reorganize government in decades.

To be sure, efforts to make government more efficient are "unveiled" by every new administration. But they usually fade away after the first month or so. There have been so many different plans (some 20 "major efforts" since 1937, according to a Civil Service study) to make government more effective and "responsive," that Washington Post editors have all but banned reporters from ever using the word "reform" in stories about the federal government.

But the latest effort has been the most comprehensive to date, and if all goes well, it will be introduced to Congress on March 1 with the unequivical support of the president.

"The president's plan to reform the civil service system is the keystone of his government reform efforts for 1978," said Sy Lazarus, who heads up White House reorganization-efforts. "It's the only comprehensive re-examination of the federal personnel system in the history of federal law. Everyone agrees that the civil service system is in need of repair."

Lazarus said that civil service changes bringing incentive and motivation into federal service are necessary if any of the other agency-level changes and reorganizations are to work.

So on March 1, legislation will go to the Hill offering four key areas of change: creation of a senior executive service, the streamlining of disciplinary procedures into a separate commission, a new incentive-pay system for government "middle managers," and the delegation of some civil service hiring functions to the agencies that are doing the hiring instead of a centralized agency that hires for everyone.

Following shortly after the legislation, probably in mid-March, will come the other shoe -- the massive reorganization of all personnel functions under the rules of the Federal Reorganization Act -- which also goes before Congress for approval some 60 days later.

Alan "Scotty" Campbell, who was appointed by Carter to head the Civil Service Commission, has spent the past year going from agency to agency selling the president's reorganization plan and taking suggestions for its final form. The end result came out of something called the "Personnel Management Project," an ambitious study done by a cross section of 100 federal staffers who concluded that the government should dismantle the Civil Service Commission and replace it with two separate units: the Office of Personnel Management and the Merit Protection Board.

The first would be a sort of Senior Career Service of up to 10,000 top executives who would operate under a new set of rules for government managers: no automatic pay raises, the possibility of bonuses, and a job classification that would allow them to be easily transferred to a desirable spot in another agency without necessarily resulting in pay decreases or increases (under the present system, 95 percent of all executive-level federal employes remain in the same agency during their entire career of government service).

These executives would lose some job protection, however, in exchange for the flexibility and merit system proposed under the new plan. Although there would be added rewards for exceptional work, if an executive was found to be ineffective, for example, he or she could be forced to exercise "parachute rights" and fall back into a GS-15 rated job, or -- to use an expression that rarely slips into the federal government vocabulary -- he or she could be fired.

Campbell says this office will be "the same with people as the Office of Management and Budget is with budgets." Run by a director appointed by the White House, with Senate approval, "it will treat people the same way OMB treats dollars -- putting them to the best use possible," he adds.

The Merit Protection Board actually would be a three-person, bipartison commission that would assume control over the civil service function of protecting the federal worker from abuses. Under Campbell's plan, it would have an investigating arm and a special prosecutor "with wide powers," who would watch for such things as retaliation against "whistle blowers."

Creation of these two separate entities is designed to rid the Civil Service Commission of what Campbell calls a "built-in conflict of interest" in the present system: The CSC is supposed to support the interest of an efficient, well-run management and protect the workers against that same management.

Campbell, a 54-year-old administrator who formerly served as dean of prestigious schools of Public Affairs at Syracuse University and the University of Texas, also hopes that the flexibility of the new system will allow the federal government to hire more women and minorities. Some of these new hires may come at the expense of veterens, whose present special status in the federal hiring program would be diluted under Campbell's reorganization.

More than half of all federal workers are veterans compared with 22 percent of the private work force. And in the higher-grade positions in the government, the veteran count jumps to 65 percent. Under the new plan, except for disabled vets, the clause giving veterans prefence for federal jobs will only remain in effect for an individual within 10 years of his or her severence from the service.

The move is designed both to increase the chances of women and minorities to secure jobs in government and to increase general flexibility in hiring. Under the present "Rule of Three," the CSC sends a list of three choices to an agency that is trying to fill a position. Because these choices more often than not are veterans --under the veterans preference system --unused, and the job isn't filled," says Campbell.

He added, however, that he favored expanded rights for the Vietnam veterans. "We must focus our aid to veterans that this country really owes a debt to -- Vietnam vets and disabled vets," he said.

The point of the entire new reorganization is to make government more efficient and allow managers to manage the same way it is done in the private sector -- with the maximum available flexibility to get the job done, Campbell points out. Under the new plan, managers could bring people in and out of their agencies on a project basis, moving the best people around to the jobs they are suited for in a much faster and more efficient manner.

Instead of setting a dollar rating on a particular job, under Campbell's plan an executive would have a certain salary rating in whatever job he were placed. And if he moved out of a job, and a person ten years his junior in experience replaced him, that person would not have to be making the same amount of money he was when he left.

Another example of how the system might benefit the government could be the eventual creation of a corps of "super litigators" in places like the Justice Department. Under the present plan, after a government lawyer excels at trial work for a few years, he faces a dead end in terms of advancement unless he wants to leave the courtroom to become an administrator.

Larry Ross, counsel to the House Ways and Means Oversight Subcommittee, left Justice in 1975 after several years as a top trial attorney. "I had no other place to go," he said, "because I didn't want to spend all my time sitting behind a desk."

Under the new plan, the heads of each federal agency would have a great deal of discretion over who should be rewarded under a bonus plan, and how certain jobs could be made more attractive, or elevated in stature above their present standing. "There is no doubt that the head of an agency will have a good deal of freedom in the management of his work force," says Campbell.

Campbell says he has operated under the premise that most people in government "want to do a good job . . . and would support a system that would reward them for doing that job," and would penalize people who don't do their work. "The average civil servant is as dedicated and hardworking as anyone in private industry," he said in an earlier interview.

In an effort to offset many federal employes' fears that there will be a wholesale reduction in jobs and protection under the new system, President Carter has promised that none of the 2.8 million federal civilian employes will lose their job in the changeover to a new system. "We are trying to get more productivity out of the people we have," says Campbell. That can be done only with better incentive and penalty programs, he added.

"The new plan would give us a better, cheaper, more efficient system," says William Medina, assistant secretary for administration of Housing and Urban Development. "We couldn't even get the last administration to acknowledge that there was a problem," said the former OMB official.

Medina gave an example of how the new Office of Personnel Management would help his agency. "In instances where we needed a specialized person, like someone in the multi-family housing field, it would mean that we could hire him by ourselves. We don't need a nationwide examination administered by the Civil Service Commission to find such a person -- and under the new system, we wouldn't have to have one."

But the OPM would help in generalized hires like a budget analyst or a personnel officer, Medina pointed out. "In those cases, it is more efficient to hire someone through a centralized system," he said.

The call for a change in the federal personnel system has been growing for a long time, and Campbell says the voices calling for change are now loud enough to make him think that it can be accomplished.

"We find greater enthusiasm out of town," he says. "And from the political viewpoint, we have the general public on our side. There is a quiet acceptance of the need for change that can be used to influence Congress to support our concept. But it's a tough issue to rally people around -- like trying for support on a local level for a city planning issue."

But there are others in the public eye supporting the need for a reform effort, including many who are known to be friends of the public servant like Rep. Morris Udall (D-Ariz.). In a recent speech, Udall cited studies which show "that the public regards federal employes as underworked, overpaid bureaucrats, insensitive to human needs."

"I favor splitting the present commission into two separate agencies," says Udall of the Civil Service proposal. "Vocal opposition to the Carter reorganization plan may only be read by a hostile public as opposition to needed reform by an entrenched bureacracy."

In a recent interview, Udall added, "We'd damn well better change the system or people will lose all confidence in government."