SEN. JOHN GLENN released a report the other day suggesting the Reagan administration is packing the upper reaches of the civil service with a lot of political appointees, thereby "breaking the spirit of the career service on the rack of cronyism" and -- we began to imagine -- salting the government with moles who could linger after the president and help nudge the departments in directions they might otherwise not go. Pretty awful, right? Pretty thin, it turns out.

The senator released a staff report, together with figures compiled by the General Accounting Office, concerning noncareer appointments in the Senior Executive Service. The SES was created in 1978 as an elite corps of 7,000 of the government's top managers. They do not have traditional civil service protections, but the trade-off is that those who do well on the job can look forward to extra rewards.

While the data do demonstrate some increase in noncareer personnel in the SES, the senator went into orbit a little too fast. The report relies heavily on percentages rather than actual numbers. But a 57.1 percent increase in noncareer appointees in the Department of the Air Force translates to an increase of four individuals; a 71.4 percent rise in the Navy reflects the addition of five people. In fact, except for the Justice Department, which added 29 noncareer positions, not a single department or agency added more than a dozen. Seven agencies have fewer noncareer SES positions now than they did in 1980.

The SES was created at a time when the Democrats controlled the White House and both houses of Congress. The statute sets limits on noncareer appointments to the SES -- 10 percent government-wide and 25 percent in any individual agency -- and those limits have not been exceeded. And when the SES was created toward the end of the Carter administration, as one GSA official points out, many political appointees joined the SES and were counted as career civil servants for purposes of this study. In addition, while it may be correct, as the report states, that the number of politically controlled Schedule C slots was 1,000 "prior to the Carter administration" and has now "ballooned to over 1,600," more than two-thirds of that growth occurred during the four Carter years.

There is cause to complain about the quality of many Reagan appointments and frustration when political types are moved into the SES -- where Senate confirmation is not required. But the numbers themselves are not a scandal. Fortunately for the country, the civil service will surviv