The National Endowment for the Arts last month awarded $60,000 in cash bonuses to 85 staff members, classified as "outstanding," as part of an incentive program the government is encouraging for federal employes.

The National Endowment for the Humanities will similarly award $7,500 next month in cash incentives to 17 of its employes. That agency already awarded $2,500 in bonuses earlier in the year.

The funds for the awards came from the endowments' administrative budgets -- specifically, the salary budgets -- for the 1981 fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30. Both agencies face probable severe cutbacks in funds for the 1982 fiscal year.

"It's not as if the funds could have been used for something else in the arts," said NEA chairman Livingston Biddle, explaining that administrative funds cannot be funneled into arts programs. " They might have been shifted to a little bit more travel, but I didn't see that as necessary."

"We held off until the end of the year to see what kind of money would be available," said NEA deputy chairman Donald A. Moore.

At NEA, awards were given to employes ranging from program directors to secretaries, according to Biddle. Six persons -- five program directors and the congressional liaison -- received awards of $2,000. "It was for the leadership," Biddle said of the largest awards. All of those recipients were in the $50,000 annual salary range, he said.

"Most of the awards were at $500 and below," said Biddle. "I think there were a few $350s, a few were at $1,000 and a few were at $1,500."

At NEH, the largest bonuses are two $2,000 awards earmarked for high-ranking staff members currently earning salaries in the low $40,000 range, according to endowment chairman Joseph Duffey. "The average award was about $500; $200 was the lowest award."

"There are a lot of little people here who work their tails off," said Donald Moore. "People have assumed parts of other people's jobs." The NEA was ordered to reduce its personnel from 325 to 285, which it is accomplishing by attrition, according to Biddle. According to personnel officer Charles Mixon, "maybe a couple" were fired. There are now 293 NEA employes.

Said the NEH's Joseph Duffey: "I think this year was a difficult year for employes. We've been losing people through attrition. We've had to rewrite our budget six times. I thought there ought to be some recognition of effort and work."

The endowment has regularly made such incentive awards, according to Biddle. He said the Office of Personnel Management "sent out a directive that encouraged an increased use of these incentive awards." Biddle also said that one percent of the salary budget "was what I understood to be a reasonable sum" for the awards. According to NEA budget director Larry Baden, the salary budget is $7.75 million, putting the $60,000 in cash grants well below one percent.

"If we hadn't been encouraged to do this," said Biddle, "I would feel that I had taken some unusual action, perhaps. But I did feel it was a normal procedure."

OPM spokesman John Scholzen confirmed that the use of the incentive awards program is encouraged. "We're trying to get federal agencies to use it more," he said. "We're not encouraging them to give out more money for the hell of it. We're encouraging them to use the program to ultimately obtain better work and ideas from employes." He also confirmed the one-percent guideline.

The directive to which NEA officials referred is from the Federal Personnel Manual System (Special Blue Bulletin, No. 87). It is dated June 17, 1980, and is signed by OPM's then-deputy director Jule M. Sugarman.

The bulletin states, "The Incentive Awards Program provides a means for establishing a positive relationship with employes and for developing a work force highly motivated toward achieving organizational goals and objectives."

Scholzen said that in fiscal year 1980, $44 million in cash awards were given out in the federal government. "That represents less than one-tenth of one percent of the federal civilian payroll," he said.

The NEA awards were recommended by a committee of administrative personnel who received suggestions from supervisors. The NEH followed a similar procedure.

"I didn't look at how much money I had to distribute," said Duffey. "I looked at the people who've done superior work."