Federal agencies this week will get guidelines telling them how to handle a program Uncle Sam is about to launch that will provide paid sabbaticals -- from three to 11 months -- for top brass who want to broaden their horizons thinking, studying or working elsewhere.

Advice coming from the Office of Personnel Management is designed, officials hope and pray, to avoid the embarrassing political bloopers that nearly sunk the bonus system for members of the Senior Executive Service.

President Carter's civil service reform act created the high-risk, high-reward Senior Executive Service composed of 6,200 ex-supergraders at GS 16, 17 and 18 levels. In return for becoming "more responsive" to management control, executives were promised a shot at bonuses, presidential cash awards and paid time off.

Congress jumped on a couple of agencies, charging that too many members of bonus-award committees got the awards themselves, and it was peeved when a couple of executives who were given $20,000 awards by Carter proceeded to leave government shortly thereafter.

Some members of Congress felt that a $20,000 "gold watch" was a mite overgenerous, and felt that the special honors should be used to reward people who planned to stay in government. Then OPM chief Alan K. Campbell used his considerable political charm on Capitol Hill to persuade the Senate and House not to scrub the bonus system, with a "for God sake, don't let it happen again" admonition from Sen. Thomas Eagleton (D-Mo.).

Agencies have been awaiting guidelines on how to handle sabbaticals for SES members. OPM has suggested that agencies set numerical limits on sabbaticals of either one a year in small shops, or no more than 1 percent of the SES work force in larger agencies. OPM recommends that the minimum paid time off be three months, but says agencies can carve up the time (the maximum sabbatical is 11 months) almost any way they want. Agencies are being urged to be very, very careful that the people who get the time off deserve it and use it well.

"We want to make sure that this isn't viewed as, or used as a long, paid vacation," a top OPM official said, recalling the congressional uproar over the way bonuses were distributed. SES members who apply for the paid time off must demonstrate that they will be better SES members when they return. Sabbaticals must be confined to persons who will be performing uncompensated work:

* In private industry or with a state or local government unit.

* In the academic world, either teaching or studying.

* In "individual" study or research programs outside classrooms.

* In an individual basic research project.

Once the guidelines are issued-- and they should be in the hands of top officials this week -- agencies will begin considering who should get the sabbaticals, and for how long. A congressional staffer who helped work on the civil service reform package said "we don't want to learn later that some guy took off a year to sail a boat around the world, or take up sand painting." If that happens, he predicts, "Congress will kill the program faster than you can spell sabbatical."