Even at the highest level of our government, in this case the White House itself, people can get confused over protocol. Today's example involves two federal departments -- Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and Health and Human Services (HHS) -- and how one did and one didn't fly the flag at half-staff yesterday in respect for their former secretary, Patricia Roberts Harris.

Harris, who died Saturday, was appointed by President Carter in 1977 as secretary of HUD. She moved in 1979 to Health, Education and Welfare, which later evolved into HHS. She left office at the end of the Carter administration in 1981.

Yesterday, flags flew at half-staff over the Independence Avenue headquarters and other installations of HHS by order of its present secretary, Margaret Heckler.

But we got calls from HUD employes wondering why that department hadn't done the same. A HUD spokesman said Secretary Samuel Pierce, arriving at work yesterday and wanting to honor Roberts, had an aide call the military office at the White House, only to be told that such an action requires a presidential proclamation. (A man who responded to Metro Scene's inquiry in the military office conceded that was the advice given to Pierce's aide.)

However, presidential proclamation No. 3044 on the subject, permitting but not requiring the half-staffing of flags, was indeed issued -- by President Eisenhower, on March 4, 1954. It's part of the handbook of flag display still used by the General Services Administration.

"Whereas," Ike's proclamation declared, "it is appropriate that the flag . . . be flown at half-staff on federal buildings . . . upon the death of principal officials and former officials [emphasis supplied] . . . as a mark of respect . . . .

"The heads of the several departments and agencies . . . may direct that the flag . . . be flown at half-staff on buildings . . . under their jurisdiction on occasions . . . which they consider proper . . . "

HUD flags, along with those of HHS, are expected to fly at half-staff today and tomorrow, when Roberts' funeral will be held at 1 p.m. at Washington Cathedral. A wake will be held from 5 to 9 p.m. today at Howard University's Rankin Chapel.