WASHINGTON'S PROBLEMS inspire not only national headlines but late-night comedians -- and all this adverse publicity hurts. In fact, the citizenry here is no less wise, or less honest, than that of other cities, and no less deserving of equal protection under the Constitution.

In addition, we must get rid of the city government's image as bloated, corrupt and incompetent. In fact, District employees are mostly dedicated civil servants; it is far too easy to forget that for 16 years, lots of talented people have applied ideas and energy -- with positive results -- to many problems facing Washington.

That a mayoral election is coming up is good luck indeed for a city in trouble, and it should encourage us to look beyond the rivalries of politics. It should above all persuade us to focus on those issues that will face the D.C. electorate in the 1990s -- and beyond.

What we propose here is a platform of sorts, to set forth some of the economic, social and administrative problems that beset us, as well as the racial issues that divide us. No mayoral candidate -- and no mayor -- can do less than address these questions.

Some of what we suggest will seem self-evident. Who, after all, can disagree with the objective of bringing more efficiency to motor vehicle registration and inspections? And who can question the proposition that we must have leaders who exemplify integrity and high moral standards? Mostly, though, we will try to look at where we are now, and where we ought to be. The prob-lems -- and their solutions -- also suggest an array of common interests in a city sometimes thought to be hopelessly divided.

It is nearly impossible for a community increasingly divided between rich and poor to experience economic health. Washington's survival depends on its ability to develop and maintain the mechanisms that spur economic health -- and to provide adequate schools, housing and health care.The Human Dividends

D.C. mayoral candidates should address these issues, and do so in detail. They should do so with a hard look at the revenue capacity of the District, and the services we can afford to provide. And they should do so with a realistic idea of what a mayor personally can accomplish, and what is better handled by a city administrator.

Here is a checklist of major concerns:

Far too many of our young people grow up in homes that deny them positive role models and meaningful cultural identity. The stresses associated with teen pregnancy, welfare, drugs and crime make the job for our schools doubly difficult. The head of city government must find a way to play a stronger role in laying out the community's expectations and following up on the progress of our school system toward achieving those expectations.

If the D.C. school board has the responsibility to adjust the curriculum, the mayor should help increase public awareness of the challenge of lowering the dropout rate and increasing the number of students who complete high school. The need for adult basic education should also be served. We have too many people who are beyond school age and have not acquired adequate skills for survival.

The list of pressing health issues in this community is similarly alarming: high death rates from cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure and the rising deaths from AIDS. Washington's infant mortality rate, the highest in the nation, must be reduced. Treatment for drug and alcohol abuse must be made available as needed. This will help to reduce the demand side of the illegal-drug menace, and the crime that drugs bring to local communities.

Too many citizens believe that an emergency may not bring the instant response that is needed. Most emergency calls are answered properly and promptly, but there have been too many questions raised without satisfactory responses.

The next mayor must suggest ways to increase the availability of housing for low-income families through rehabilitation of existing housing. Moderate-income families must have a way to become stakeholders in our community and contribute to our neighborhoods. They cannot be driven away to the suburbs leaving only the poor and the rich to decide the city's future.

All citizens must feel confident that the city can guarantee public safety. Adequate, visible law enforcement will help to reduce crime and reassure community residents, tourists and businesses -- in all neighborhoods from Anacostia to Georgetown.

Do the candidates agree? What are their approaches?Getting What We Pay For

D.C. mayoral candidates should be willing to commit themselves to quick solutions to matters that have needlessly made life more difficult. After all, government exists to serve the people; this must be its first and highest priority, and every citizen should be able to receive the services purchased with tax dollars in an effective and timely manner.

For example, is it too much to ask serious mayoral candidates to promise that:

Private service stations will provide automobile inspections, and other motor vehicle services will be decentralized.

500 units of abandoned housing will be renovated for low- and moderate-income families.

Average ambulance response time will be 10 minutes or less -- across the board.

Police foot patrols will be expanded.

Vital statistics services will be delivered in 15 minutes.

The infant mortality rate will be reduced by 25 percent.

Drivers' permits will be issued in 15 minutes.

Traffic tickets will be adjudicated in 30 minutes.

Abandoned cars will be removed within 24 hours.

In short, long waits and long lines will be a thing of the past. The cadre of government workers who are responsible for adjudication of traffic tickets should be as swift as the cadre that places the citation on your windshield, seconds after the meter turns red.

Washington's leadership for the 1990s must promise to impose fair and equitable taxes. These taxes must be collected on time, and credited correctly and efficiently. Refunds should be processed promptly.

The city's budgets must be balanced, and its audit "clean." The city's programs must be delivered in a cost-effective manner. It is difficult to control spending in an environment where the government tries to satisfy all the needs of all the citizens.

The action this May by Wall Street to reduce the city's bond rating sent a clear signal to our elected officials, who must choose between cutting programming or raising taxes. Low bond ratings increase the cost of borrowing, which limits further the city's ability to maintain the existing program base.

(At the same time, citizens should know that the city has in fact acted with fiscal prudence. When the District was given limited home rule in 1974, the federal government left a general fund deficit that grew to $284 million by 1979 for our local elected officials to eliminate. That deficit was cut by $80 million -- it stood at $204 million at the end of fiscal 1989. Its complete elimination will require systematic and serious attention.)

This call for tighter controls and reduced spending does not excuse the federal government from paying its fair share of the District's costs. It has not done so in recent years, and taxpayers cannot afford to subsidize the cost of the federal presence in the city. Immediate attention must also be given to the unfunded pension liability fund for District employees inherited from the federal government.

A clear set of priorities must be established laying out what services the government will provide and in what time frame. It is time to establish some measurable goals, and to work toward them.

Meanwhile, the time has passed, if it ever existed, when government could be looked to as the primary job market. The growth in the public payroll must be cut, and the employee base trimmed by a minimum of 5 percent -- with a savings to the city of approximately $70 million annually. It is up to mayoral candidates to outline just what they would do to meet this goal, but as a start, they might examine the large staff of the D.C. Council. Other examples will surely come to the minds of candidates.The Road Ahead No community issue is more urgent than race. Many minority citizens believe that they do not share in the economic benefits of this city. They also believe that they are continually subjected to racial slights and indignities. Indeed, many minority citizens feel they live in a colony controlled by outside forces with self-serving interests. The District, with the newly elected mayor, must be prepared to discuss frankly the racial polarization and animosity that exists in Washington.

A good starting place would be an examination of the number of minority partners in major law and accounting firms; or the number of officials and managers in our local banks, development companies, insurance companies, etc.; or the number of minorities on the boards of directors of our local corporations.

A community whose residents are 70 to 75 percent minority must have equity and opportunities that increase minority participation in all aspects of business development activities.

Likewise, the leadership for the District in the '90s must have support from all corners of the city; all racial and ethnic groups; the neighborhood leaders and business leaders. And these interests can, and should work together to achieve common goals, among them a downtown business core, a proper balance between neighborhoods and developers, the maintenance of the city's infrastructure.

We also propose a process that would hold D.C. officeholders accountable on a continuing basis.

In presidential campaigns, the major parties try to assure broad-based representation on the platform committee. We recommend that D.C. mayoral candidates take a similar approach. And we recommend an extra step: that the resulting citizens panel regularly evaluate the implementation of the winning candidate's platform.

As a beginning, a citizens' congress would establish goals in the first three months of a new mayoral term. The evaluation would be carried out by a community oversight committee that would report to the public. It seems especially appropriate that citizens involve themselves in this way. After all, are these not the basic principles on which any representative government should operate?

We cannot pretend to have drafted a complete agenda for the future. But we have provided a start. Who now will stand up and be counted?

Elijah Rogers, a former D.C. city administrator, is chief operating officer of Delon Hampton & Associates. Vincent Cohen is a partner in the law firm of Hogan & Hartson.