I LIKE TO RECALL the time the Czechoslovak government got mad at our then-ambassador, Ellis O. Briggs, and ordered two-thirds of our embassy staff to return to the United States. Briggs found that the remaining third constituted the most efficient embassy he had ever known.

I had heard of a few similar cases: When Bill Keller and Ann Cooper compared the American embassies in Morocco and Mali for The Washington Monthly, they found the latter, at less than half the size of the former, more efficient. When the District of Columbia reduced its garbage collection crews from four men to three, the result was not less but greater productivity. Such examples are, however, difficult to uncover because they are not the sort of truth bureaucrats yearn for the public to know.

So I was delighted to hear recently that the Japanese Foreign Ministry, among the world's most efficient, is exactly one-third the size of our State Department. Indeed, the entire Japanese government has but 506,000 employes. Thus a nation with a population half the size of ours manages to make do with a bureaucracy less than one-fifth our own.

There is a reason why we have those three-thirds instead of the one- third: Large American organizations, whether government or business, tend to be staffed to fill the peak demand that each of their departments or divisions has experienced. This is "slot inflation." Here is how it works.

In an organization's infancy a few people do virtually everything that has to be done. They know everything there is to know about the organization, so that whenever they have some spare time they can pitch in and help their partners. As the organization grows beyond the capacity of those early few to handle its affairs, new employes are hired. "You know, we need someone full-time in sales," or, "We can't handle distribution with everything else we have to do, let's hire someone just to do that."

Before long, a director of personnel is hired. He makes organization charts with little boxes for sales director, distribution director, etc. These are called slots. At first the people who fill the slots may be very busy. They may even need assistants who in turn will occupy slots like assistant sales director. But at some point in the history of the organization, the peak work load in these jobs usually diminishes. Perhaps the business stops growing, or the jobs become routine, or the work of the company changes so most of it is done by other people in other departments. Or perhaps a clever fellow figures out how to do the distribution in the morning so that he is free to devote his afternoons to three-martini lunches, phone calls to friends or a round of golf.

The result is that the slot no longer represents a full day's work. When a new distribution employe is hired to fill the slot, he quickly learns that he's getting a full salary that covers an awful lot of leisure time. If he feels guilty about this, he will begin to fill his days with busy work. In few organizations do the executives dare take off every afternoon for the golf course. But most executives in most large organizations do spend at least half their time involved in the golf substitute of the guilty -- writing memoranda and attending meetings.

When an assistant distribution director leaves, no one asks if a full- time person is needed to replace him. It's a slot, and everyone tells his friends about this great job that's just opened up at Acme Widget. And if anyone dared suggest that it wasn't a full-time job, he could be sure that the distribution director would, on the assumption that his bureaucratic empire was being attacked, launch an immediate and vicious counterattack against the wretch who had made such a rude suggestion. So heads of bureaucratic units learn to conceal their suspicions about their fellow division directors, and since no one will cast the first stone, the organization continues to automatically fill slots without regard to the real work load.

The Reagan administration has dealt with this problem in two ways -- one brilliant, the other stupid. The one brilliant example was the elimination of the work peaks that had caused slot inflation among the air traffic controllers. This was done by reducing rush-hour flights at major airports, which made possible the drastic staff reduction that followed the firing of the strikers. (Unfortunately, the FAA, which has seldom been guilty of such brilliance, seems to be moving toward permitting peak overloads once again.)

The stupid way was the kind of freezes and RIFs that leave empty slots. The distribution director who spends half his day at the golf course does do real work in the other half, work that is truly important to his organization. If he is fired or resigns and is not replaced, that work will go undone.

There is a simple solution to the slot problem. It is consolidation of jobs. Combine the distribution director's job, for example, with that of another employe who also really works only half-time. That way you still can eliminate one employe, but you'll be doing it in a way that does not harm your organization.

When I was working at the Peace Crops in the mid-sixties, it became clear that the headquarters was succumbing to the usual Washington tendency toward overstaffing, and I was assigned to look into the problem. What I discovered was that for each of the 50 or so countries to which our volunteers were assigned, we had Washington officials who were called program officers, training officers and volunteer support officers. These people spent most of their day in meetings with or writing memos or talking on the phone to one another.

We could have saved the time involved in these communications and in the bureaucratic squabbling that accompanied them by turning the three jobs into one. My suggestion to do just that was opposed with considerable passion by almost everyone concerned. The argument was that each job involved a different kind of expertise. But the truth was that the necessary expertise, as in the case of so much administrative work, was acquired on the job.

Still, I lost the argument, as I'm sure anyone would who was making it today. But that doen't mean I wasn't right. It means simply that there is trememdous resistance to any bureaucratic reform that threatens jobs, and that we are going to have to figure out how to overcome it if we wnat to make this government -- and our increasingly bureaucratic private sector -- begin to work again.

There will be even more resistance now, when so many of us fear unemployment. But, remember, one reason for the economic decline that has caused unemplyment is that our industries have become uncompetitive with those of other nations. And one reason they are not competitive is the featherbedding that has become characteristic of our large organizations from top to bottom.