RICHARD M. NIXON TOOK office in 1969 complaining that Washington had become the nation's crime capital and quickly convinced the city to hire nearly 1,000 additional police officers. With a wave of the presidential hand, the police department grew by nearly a third. Today, the District has an authorized police force of 4,540 making it, per capita, one of the largest in the country.

Nixon's intervention in what might be considered a local matter was not unprecedented. For years the District's overlords in the White House and on Capitol Hill have treated the city as their personal domain and "urban laboratory," encouraging expenditures to make the city safer or more comfortable during their stay.

This federal interest helps, but does not entirely explain why the District, by most measures, has a bloated workforce. How else to describe a workforce of 39,000 full- time employes serving 622,823 residents -- one worker for every 16 Washingtonians. New York City, which copes with far more serious problems of crime, poverty and commuter traffic, employs roughly one worker for every 22 residents. The city of Chicago, which historically has been no slouch at putting the politically well-connected on the city payroll, employs one worker for every 44 residents -- and that includes employes of Cook County, the Metropolitan Sanitation District, the Chicago Park Service and the state welfare department who provide services to Chicago residents.

If the District is viewed as a state, it ranks No. 2 nationally, just behind Alaska, in full- time state and local employes per 10,000 population, according to a study released last March by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

As might be expected, District officials don't like those types of comparisons. They argue that the city is sui generis, a highly compressed "city-state" obliged to provide a wide range of social services to the poor that, in other cities, are provided by the state or county governments and also to cope with the daily influx of non-income tax paying commuters.

But it's hard to justify such a large -- and growing -- workforce when the District's population continues to decline (Washington lost another 10,600 residents between 1982 and 1984) and taxes are so high. Middle and upper income residents are saddled with one of the largest tax burdens of any state in the country. The District ranks fourth (behind Alaska, New York and Wyoming) in taxes its residents pay as a percentage of their personal income.

The city's workforce has held steady for the past few years. But while other cities continue to tighten their belts, the District is getting ready to hire an additional 536 workers in the coming fiscal year.

About 44 percent of the District's $2.1 billion annual operating budget goes for salries and benefits.

The D.C. public schools, with 10,756 teachers, administrators and other staff, are by far the largest city employer. Other heavy hitters include the Department of Human Services with 5,792 workers; the Department of Corrections with 2,868; the Public Works Department with 1,846; the fire department with 1,664; the University of the District of Columbia's 1,489 employes, and the Department of Finance and Revenue's 553.

Even studies that are heavily skewed to give the District the benefit of the doubt -- including one conducted by the Bureau of the Census in 1981 at the request of the city -- shows the District running ahead of half the other "comparable" cities in per capita workforce.

This situation in part stems from policy decisions of Mayor Marion Barry and the D.C. City Council: Faced with mounting problems of unemployment, poverty, drug addiction and illiteracy, the city has chosen to keep a large workforce at just about any cost. In some ways, the city has served as an employment agency of first and last resort. Washington, of course, is not the only city in America to assume this role. American cities historically have served as employers to its citizenry. The District is honoring this tradition with gusto.

Next to the federal government, the city is the largest employer in Washington, running far ahead of the Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Company, Pepco, The Washington Post, the J.W. Marriott Corporation and Woodward & Lothrop in the private sector. This summer, any young person who wanted a temporary job was guaranteed one if he registered with the Department of Employment Services.

The Department of Human Services, one of the city's largest agencies, experienced several lean years but has shown steady growth in its staff during the past three years. The few proposals floated by Barry to reduce spending were shot down by city council members sensitive to pressures from community groups and wefare advocates. The agency workforce will expand even more in the next few years -- under yet another mandate from the White House and Congress -- as the city assumes full responsibility for patients now being treated at the federally run St. Elizabeths Hospital in Southeast Washington.

Some of the District's expansion has had an unmistakable political tinge. A good example is the mayor's Office of Community Services, a citywide network of the mayor's political operatives paid with city funds. Several high-ranking city officials have found good-paying jobs for their spouses in the city bureaucracy. Former Deputy Mayor Ivanhoe Donaldson and his wife, Winifred, were among the more prominent city-salaried couples.

Just before he took office in 1979, Barry said in an interview that he was considering adopting a policy of having the city government be the employer of last resort. The District's budget crisis at the time prevented Barry from formally adopting such a policy, but city officials say they are sensitive to the impact any cutback could have on the local economy. The city's unemployment rate, currently 8.5 percent, historically has run far ahead of joblessness in surrounding areas.

"The local economic situation is more sensitive to what we (in city government) do than in other jurisdictions," said Betsy Reveal, the D.C. budget director. "So you have to be sensitive in cutting back . . . . Attrition is basically our only method for affecting the work force size."

In 1980 and 1981, the city actually laid off 688 workers, mostly in the Departments of Recreation, General Services, Human Services and Corrections, to avert a feared deficit. Later, Barry admitted he had overreacted when an audit showed the city actually finished fiscal 1981 with a $68.3 million surplus. To compound the embarrassment, the city violated so many personnel rules in making the RIFs that later it was ordered by an administrative judge to rehire many of the workers who had been laid off.

Barry learned his lesson from that episode. Prior to his 1982 reelection campaign, he imposed a no-RIF policy, still in effect, that has endeared him to the public employes unions. "Attrition" is the District's main tool for culling the ranks, but few workers are willing to leave until retirement day, and no wonder. Salaries for most workers range from $9,122 to $63,700 a year, with the average worker pulling down about $29,000 a year. The average city worker here earns about $7,000 a year more than the average worker in the private sector.

A study by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) shows that District pay for clerks, civil engineers, nurses aides, custodial workers and electricians is comparable to federal government pay, is generally higher than salaries for government workers in Boston, Atlanta and Chicago, and generally is below the municipal pay levels only of New York City.

In the post-World War II era, state and local government grew at a rapid pace. But by the late 1970s, the work forces began to decline, in the face of taxpayers' rebellions, budget crunches and declining enrollments in public schools. Local government was hardest hit by the decline and the deepest cuts were made in local school personnel. Spending for public safety generally held up.

In comparing the District's employment levels with those of the 50 states between 1957 and 1983, the most current data available, a study by the National Conference of State Legislatures treated the District as a "city-state," recognizing that it had to provide both local and state services, such as welfare and highway maintenance. According to the report, the District in 1983 employed 735 employes per 10,000 population, second only to Alaska, with 814 state and local workers per 10,000 population.

Others near the top included Wyoming, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas, Georgia, North Dakota, Montana, New York and Delaware. Generally, states with large land masses and small populations ranked highest in per capita government employment. The tiny District, only 69 square miles in area and a population approaching three-quarters of a million, is the notable exception.

Sensitive to its large workforce, the District in 1981 commissioned the Bureau of the Census to compare the city with seven other Eastern seaboard and Midwestern cities and to take into account that the District provides a combination of city, county and state functions.

In that study, based on 1979 data, the District ranked fourth, behind Newark, Baltimore and Atlanta, but ahead of St. Louis, Cleveland, Detroit and Philadelphia, in full- time equivalent city employment per 10,000 population.

In reaching that conclusion, the Census Bureau inflated the workforces of the seven other cities as a best guess of what workforces would be if they operated as the District does, as a "city-state." The Census Bureau acknowledged some problems with the study. Besides making seat-of-the-pants guesses about what workforces would be in other cities, the bureau said, it wasn't given much money to do the study and had to cut corners.

The advent of District home rule 10 years ago has done little to diminish the ardor of the White House and Congress to influence D.C. affairs. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the city's spending, routinely adds millions of dollars to the District's budget for pet projects requiring additional D.C. personnel; his latest was $30 million to help build a new prison in Washington. Congress has also shown a keen interest over the years in beefing up the city's fire department. When the city recently revealed plans to close a surplus fire station near the Capitol, the House Appropriations subcommittee on the District raised a fuss. (The outcome is still undecided.)

Some efforts are being made to streamline government with new management techniques, according to D.C. budget boss Reveal, but many of the social services provided by the city "don't lend themselves to technological breakthroughs that would result in major reductions in workforce." Even where new technology can be introduced, the city hasn't had the stomach to actually abolish jobs.

Consider the case of the "super can," the green, flip-top plastic garbage can that was bestowed upon most District residents five years ago and touted as a gleaming symbol of the city's commitment to reducing a bloated bureaucracy.

The city banned the old aluminum cans and replaced them with standardized 85-gallon super cans, which hold more trash and need to be emptied fewer times. With this "new technology in place," the District cut back trash pickups in most areas of the city from twice to once a week.

As a result, one might have concluded that a reduction in the workforce of garbage collectors of 40 percent or so would have been in order. But in 1980, the first full year of the super can, the city eliminated only four of 384 positions. The following year the city picked up steam and eliminated 60 more posts.

Today, six years later, the brigade of garbage collectors has shrunk to 270, an overall reduction of 30 percent. Most of the departed garbage collectors were reassigned to other jobs in the public works department or retired. The limited manpower savings achieved will be offset by plans to hire more workers for the department in the coming year.

As a former city official familiar with the city's personnel practices recalled recently, "When the public works department was reorganized they just moved a lot of people around. The numbers are a shell game. They just moved (garbage collection) slots around . . . and said they're abolished."