Federal officials are sometimes suckers -- with your money -- when it comes to consultants and high-priced firms whose job is telling others how to do theirs. Examples:

The Navy Department has one of the biggest civilian staffs on earth. It is the second largest employer in Washington. Yet it recently awarded a contract of between $10 million and $12 million to an "outside" firm. Purpose: to tell Navy how to set up a merit pay systems for civilian workers.

Merit pay is part of the new Civil Service Reform Act. The act has proven a bonanza to management consultant firms who are now telling many federal agencies, for a big price, how to tell who is doing a good job or bad job, who deserves bonuses and so forth. The government, with 2.6 million workers, apparently doesn't have the in-house ability to deal with such weighty matters.

The Department of Energy has had one of the fastest buildups in history. The relatively new agency already has about 20,000 people, yett it recently hired an ex-insider, now a consultant, to do a job for it. Ironically, the former DOE aide was paid "only" about $170 per day while with Uncle Sam. But as a consultant he got $360 per day.

Would you buy a used car from this consultant? Recently the Department of Health, Education and Welfare ended its relationship with a $100-per-day expert, when the expert's report contained such gems as:

"The objectives did not specify to the quantifiable of the success of the proposed program." Sen. David Pryor (D.Ark.) who has been bird-dogging consultant overdose in government, credits HEW for spotting its error (after paying the consultant nearly $1,000). But he suspects such things go unnoticed, and overly rewarded, and happen all the time.

Most people, Pryor included, figure outside consultants are sometimes necessary, even invaluable. But many people in and out of government think they are used too often when civil service personnel, who get perfectly good salaries, could do the same job.

The sad fact is that nobody in government -- including Jimmy Carter after two years of trying to find out -- has the foggiest idea how much Uncle Sam is spending on consultants, or what the government is getting in return. If you have any interesting contractor-consultant cases, pass them long. We can share them with Congress, the president and the public.