Government workers who rejoiced when Office of Personnel Management Director Donald J. Devine resigned may, by the end of the year, look back on his 4 1/2 years in office as the good old days.

The reason: Devine rocked the boat, but Congress failed to enact most of his proposals -- from changing the retirement system to linking pay raises to job turnover -- partly because of his often combative and partisan style. It kept him in a constant state of war with House Democrats and liberal Senate Republicans.

What Devine did -- in addition to overhauling the federal health program -- was to establish an agenda for major civil service changes and make his replacement look good to Congress and most federal workers.

Devine's replacement is Constance Horner, a former Office of Management and Budget official. Her style is different, but she is as tough and smart as Devine and equally committed to some of the changes he sought. But style is important. Whereas Devine often butted heads with his counterparts at the OMB, Horner gets along. She works closely with its deputy director, Joseph R. Wright Jr., who has made "reform" of the civil service one of his major goals this year.

In talks before federal groups, Horner wins points for candor, brains and style. Added to that is the new congressional commitment to budget-cutting via the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings act.

Writing in the current issue of the Federal Managers Quarterly, Horner attributed the public attitude toward civil servants to disenchantment with government policies and spending. What she outlined is a blueprint for the changes she hopes to make -- and the way she hopes to persuade federal workers to help her.

She wrote: " . . . I think alienation between the public and its government has been exacerbated by politicians who have fanned the flames of . . . resentment in order to gain votes. The undiscriminating drumbeat of complaint against government in general and civil servants in particular must be halted. It's time that we began to defend the honor of the civil servant."

Civil servants, she said, must do their part by convincing the public that they are worth what they are paid. "The benefits afforded to the civil service have to be proportionate to what the public, at any given point in our history, believes that it should pay, is willing to pay, and thinks it must pay, or feels it owes . . . . The public needs to have a sense that civil servants are paid competitively -- not too little or too much. Elected representatives need to be attuned to what is politically supportable, lest the whole system come under relentless attack that would ultimately harm the civil service . . . . "

She said the federal pension system -- with its early retirement and cost-of-living features -- is a major federal perk that makes nonfeds envious. "In short," Horner said, "it makes the civil service vulnerable to political attack and a lack of popular support. So we have to think about what benefit levels and kinds are proportional to what the public will afford the civil service, so that we can have an end to this kind of attack."

A federal union president said, "We already miss Devine. He made it seem personal, he made himself a lightning rod and he took a lot of hits. Horner is just as tough, I suspect, but she will be much harder to fight, and she is probably going to win more than she loses."