Firing people--especially government people--to save money can be a costly business.

According to congressional auditors, the Office of Personnel Management shelled out more than half a million dollars (of your money) last year in lump-sum benefits, severance pay and unemployment benefits to workers it fired for reasons of economy or reorganization.

If OPM's experience in firing people is typical of other federal agencies, and it probably is, the value of some layoffs (in political public relations) is offset, at least in the short-term, by the cost and chaos of reductions-in-force.

The General Accounting Office has just released a report on the "retrenchment and redirection" at OPM since the Reagan administration took office. GAO says that OPM has accomplished what it intended, to trim the agency and get "back to basics" (meaning away from silly Carter-era priorities), but that such change had a price.

The price was 184 employes fired, 257 downgraded, 191 reassignments and the loss of six days of pay because of furloughs for 3,000 workers.

In addition, the GAO says that the ripple effect of the RIFs (such as turning a Grade 13 research psychologist into the world's highest-paid GS 3 payroll clerk) also caused backlogs in some work, and rather obvious imbalances of skills in some areas.

Personnel directors polled by the GAO said that the reorganization and cutbacks at OPM meant that some services the agency normally performed slipped, and that it was sometimes hard to find program experts because of the musical chairs effect of the shakeups. On the plus side, the personnel directors said OPM doesn't require as much red tape reporting (or generate it), has improved training programs and given federal agencies more leeway in hiring and personnel practices.

Many customers in and out of government have noticed unwelcome changes at OPM: more glitches in retirement programs, less expertise in labor-management areas, less help to people looking for federal jobs, and the loss of in-house expertise in many areas because the people who had it were shuffled off to other jobs.