It is often said, and probably is true, that the United States government is the largest single client for design services in history, owning more buildings, occupying more square feet and printing more documents by far than any other organization in the world's biggest economy.

The people who point this out are invariably advocates for good design. They don't usually dwell on negatives. Because of its size and complexity, of the inherently dull nature of bureaucracies, of political unpredictability, of extremes of both extravagance and miserliness, the federal government for good reason is not generally considered to be one of the better design clients in the world.

But if realism compels one to admit that trying to make the monster bureaucracy an ideal design client is a Sisyphean task, simple pride in the democracy suggests that the attempt is at once necessary and worthy of praise. The government affects us all; the results of its design decisions are pervasive. "As a public body," observed Fine Arts Commission chairman J. Carter Brown the other day, "we are in the design business whether we like it or not." Excellence in federal design, he said, "should become a habit."

In that spirit let us raise a cup to the General Services Administration, the U.S. Postal Service and the National Endowment for the Arts -- the first two agencies for recently completed design competitions, the third for its ceaseless prodding, guidance and support of these and other federal design initiatives.

Obviously, because of their selective nature, awards programs do not assure consistently good design in the federal establishment. But they're important -- they reward those who seek to rise above the norm and, in sending signals through the bureaucracy, they help to elevate the norm itself. Anyone who takes a bureaucratic risk standing up for quality is bound to be heartened, and his or her position strengthened, by such recognition.

In this respect two especially important awards in these competitions were for in-house projects. One went to the the design staff of GSA's Public Buildings Service for its restoration of the central research room of the National Archives, another to the Postal Service's Office of Design and Construction (with the private architectural firm of Jay Farbstein & Associates of California) for establishing new "retail design guidelines."

Designed by John Russell Pope in the 1930s, the classic revival National Archives building is an extraordinary statement of pride in the public realm. But like all old buildings, it needs constant tending to adjust to new demands and needs. In this case, through the persistence of Andrea Mones-O'Hara of GSA and the ingenuity of Brian Blundell of the Dell Corp., a private restoration company, the necessity of installing a sprinkler system in the room's coffered ceiling was turned into an opportunity to undo past mistakes and, by the way, restore the ceiling to its former grandeur.

Ingenuity in a different cause also characterizes the Postal Service's retail design guidelines. The very concept of a post office as a store for specialized goods and services is refreshing, and the results of the guidelines can already be observed, for instance, in a very efficient little postal station on 14th Street NW downtown. The jury commended the guidelines for their clarity, brevity and flexibility, and noted that they "directly address a failure that appeared in a large number of the competition entries."

Generally, the projects chosen by distinguished juries in these competitions are very fine, especially when judged against the dispiriting decline in the quality of public architecture in the postwar era. The fact that seven of the 18 awards in the GSA competition were for restoration projects -- and only four were for new buildings -- could be viewed as an ironic commentary on the quality of newer GSA projects. But I much prefer the brighter interpretation of architect Hugh Hardy, who chaired the jury. These tangible gestures of respect for the past, he said, are "a kind of double federal leadership."

In any event, excellent examples of new architecture were singled out in both competitions. Washingtonians already are aware of the qualities of the architectural honor award winner in the GSA contest, Jean-Paul Carlhian's splendid pavilions for and complex underground ordering of the Museum of African Art and the Sackler Gallery on the Mall. Together with the wonderful surrounding gardens (which won an award for landscape architecture), these buildings prove, whether one likes buried museums or not, that the public architectural deed still can be done well.

Though not quite so prepossessing -- they were "cited" instead of "honored" -- other GSA architecture winners are likewise worthy. One, an office building in Portland, Ore., housing the Bonneville Power Administration and designed by the Zimmer Gunsul Frasca Partnership, is a needed respite from the awful office compounds GSA inflicted upon American cities during the '60s and '70s. Nicely adapted to its site with varied window patterns and stepped massing, the energy-efficient structure provides a humane working environment and is a welcoming presence on the street.

Another winner, a pavilion-like U.S. Port of Entry in Columbus, N.M., designed by the Albuquerque firm of Holmes Sabatini Eeds, is airy in feel, succinct in line and obviously modest in price. This building admirably fits its function and its locale, in keeping with jury chairman Hardy's admonishment that federal buildings "be responsive to where they are, to a specific place and moment in time." (These and other GSA winners can be seen in an exhibition of panels at the National Building Museum.)

Most of the architecture award winners in the Postal Service competition also fit Hardy's wise prescription. As illustrated in a brochure published by the NEA (for a copy, call 202-682-5437), three new post offices seem particularly distinguished: a tremendous little Western-facade job designed by the San Diego firm of Keniston & Mosher Architects for the desert town of Julian, Calif.; a lively and efficient box designed by Ross Barney + Jankowski of Chicago for an industrial park there; and an adroit, gabled structure designed by Agoos/Lovera Architects of Philadelphia for a redeveloping commercial district in that city. This last building "seems good for its neighborhood," the jury wrote, "and promises to generate more local interest in restoration and new construction in the area" -- quite a commendation.

Cost-effectiveness was one of the standards the Postal Service jury was asked to consider, and none of its awards better demonstrates the fact that inventive design can save money than the citation given to the service's Kit of Parts, a sleek, computer-aided design program for small post offices developed by the firm of JMGR of Memphis. Its use already has reduced design time by 67 percent from conventional methods.

Although the Postal Service would do well to follow the jury's advice to develop "a much higher degree of design flexibility and variation," this award is, in general, an important one: Cost-consciousness has long been used by the feds as an excuse for architectural mediocrities or even atrocities. The plain fact is, a building doesn't have to be ugly to be cheap. (Another fact is that many postwar federal buildings are both ugly and not at all cheap: Consider, for instance, the Rayburn Building.)

It is, of course, too early to tell whether these competitions represent the kind of turnaround we all would like to see in federal architecture and design. It's easy to be encouraged, but hard to be optimistic. A lot of people have spent a lot of time trying to shape a coherent, uplifting design policy for the federal government in the past 30 years, with but spotty results.

Nonetheless, this is not to say that these competition results are negligible. To the contrary, the very fact that the competitions were held is a positive note. No agency is more responsible for this than the much and sadly maligned National Endowment for the Arts, whose design arts program has been a consistent advocate of federal excellence. For this the NEA deserves our thanks and, indeed, merits its own honor award.