Since its birth this January the Office of Personnel Management has had an astoundingly high turnover of top career officials. All have been long-time veterans of OPM'S predecessor agency, the Civil Service Commission.

Some of the officials, a few barely in their 50s, have left with nothing but highest praise for the new Carterinstalled team that is hell-bent on reorganizing and reforming virtually everything about the federal government.

Other OPM departees took advantage of a new law -- drafted by the OPM and first used by that agency -- that opens up brief exit periods when employes can retire as early as age 43. A number of the top brass who have left decided retirement could be more financially rewarding. Some left, as not put it "with a shoe-print" on the seat of their pants, pushed out by smiling newcomers who commended them as they escorted them to the exit.

Many government-watchers believe that the unusually high turnover in such a short time is a combination of things. "I certainly don't see it as a general house-cleaning" said one. But he said he "definitely got the feeling" that the "new people" were anxious to grease the slide for "almost anybody who" was at CSC before them.

A number of the vacancies created by the sudden rush to retirement this year are being or will be filled by people from OPM and other agencies -- people who worked actively to draft and sell the president's civil service reform legislation.

"I would say that anybody viewed [by the powers-the-be] as 'negative' about civil service reform, or who raised questions about the dangers of politicization that are very real and possible under reform, was marked as a 'mossback' by the new team," one former Open aide said.

Another recently departed OPM official explained it differently: "i think it was a combination of things. With the executive pay freeze, it is more attractive to retire than keep working for some people. The new early-out benefits made it possible for people to quit and launch second careers, or go fishing.

"Obviously the new OPM officials Campbell [director Alan Campbell], Sugarman [deputy director Jule Sugarman] have new and different ideas. Obviously they would be comfortable with different people in some of the key jobs," he said. "But I don't see anything improper or sinister in changes," he added. "it is good for the system."

Since January OPM has gotten a new director of public affairs. He is a noncareer man who, unlike his predecessor, does not have civil service job protection. The man he replaced had planned to retire earlier but stayed on until the reform legislation cleared Congress.

The former executive director of CSC, reassigned under the OPM, retired earlier this year. Another top official, who was clearly being groomed for important assignments in OPM suddenly retired on medical disability. The long-time staff assistant to the commission's three commissioners took advantage of early retirement of leave.

Last week the top echelon of the OPM section that handles retirement and insurance matters all retired.

Federal and postal union leaders hint that "something is up" at the OPM. They are short on specifics, instead urging reporters to check their sources. One top postal leader said the departure of the retirement insurance staff is "highly significant" and he has alerted the media to "stand by for an important announcement" from the unions.

The leader of a union representing white collar and blue collar federal employes said he, and rival union leaders, are considering hiring some of the newly retired OPM officials. "They know how things are done, where the bodies are buried, and we can use their talents," he said.

If OPM is indeed clearing the decks for a new legislative thrust -- pay reform, job reforms, retirement reforms -- it would be wise to get a cooperative, eager team at the top. In the process they are handing unions -- who will oppose virtually all of the "reforms" -- some very valuable talent in the form of ex-OPM brass who will know how to make it tougher for their former federal bosses to get various reform plans through Congress.