Civil servants (once considered "fire-proof") are heading toward a rating system that will be tougher than almost anything in private industry.

Within a couple of years it is likely that Uncle Sam will routinely fire more people for incompetence than all of the big guys -- General Motors, U.S. Steel, etc. -- put together. At least he will have the tools to boot or demote people who do not measure up, and the government unlike private industry, will not have strong unions with the ability (and will) to shut the plant down if necessary.

The new (Dec. 17) decision in the Wells vs. Harris case is just coming to be understood by federal officials and union leaders. Although the Merit Systems Protection Board ruling was billed as a "defeat" for the president's streamlined-firing program, federal officials were smiling as they emerged from their whipping in the administrative-woodshed.

What the decision did is twofold. The part of the administration "lost" simply said that interim regulations on performance appraisals issued by the Office of Personnal Management were inadequate. The MSPB said agencies could not fire or demote employes for unacceptable performance in line with streamlined systems set up by the president's civil service reform law. In effect it blocked most firings for "incompetence" and told agencies that had already done it to go back and use existing rules. Those rules impose a greater burden of proof on the government to show that the employe was not doing his or her job. But that is a temporary victory.

The MSPB, however, said it was perfectly legal for the government to implement new performance appraisal standards once they are approved by OPM and explained to employes. Those new standards will make it easier for the government to build a case against an "incompetent." So it is only a matter of time before all agencies have those new systems in place.

What particularly pleased the White House was the MSPB's agreement that those performance appraisal standards do not have to be the same for people in the same occupations, nor do they need to be given to all employes at the same time. That means standards for secretaries, or computer operators for example, could vary within an agency, and that performance standards may also be different from agency to agency.That gives agency management greater leeway to set standards, and to impose them on some workers and occupation groups sooner than others.

Relatively few private firms have the leeway to deal with employes that the government soon will have, once new standards and appraisal systems are in place. The once "fire-proof" bureaucrat, if there ever really was such a thing, may soon go the way of the free lunch.