WHEN THE election results rolled in last week, the clear message from the District's electorate -- a message that confounded the city's experts and political establishment -- was to reform the government. The one candidate who dared to insist that Marion Barry resign, who resisted race-based appeals to close ranks around Barry and who consistently promised to cut the size of city government had won going away. It was a breath of fresh political air.

Sharon Pratt Dixon beat the odds to win the Democratic mayoral primary. If she also defeats Republican Maurice Turner in November, what will Dixon really be able to do, in a sagging economy, to reform a District government that is bankrupt, overgrown, tax-hungry and fat with patronage?

Dixon's opponents in the primary election, all of whom hold government office, told her it was unrealistic -- some called it irresponsible -- to talk about streamlining this government. In the course of one debate, when Dixon said she planned to cut 2,000 mid-level workers from the bloated government payroll, D.C. Del. Walter Fauntroy told her, "That's nonsense, Miss Dixon, you know you can't do that. That's not possible."

In the next eight weeks before the general election, Turner, who had expected to run against the scandal-plagued Barry, is likely to portray Dixon as an inexperienced and uninformed budget-cutter threatening the jobs of blameless city employees. Dixon could find herself pressured to stop her calls for reform under such an attack; that is what happened to John Ray. In April, Ray told an audience that he planned on "cleaning house" in the D.C. government. After city workers phoned his campaign manager to demand an explanation, Ray never promised to clean house again. This is, after all, a city with a municipal work force of 48,000 -- most of whom (not to mention their friends and families) live in the District and so are potential voters.

But Dixon owes no debts to big campaign contributors (she didn't have any) and has no heavy campaign structure to slow her down. Some experts think Dixon could be independent enough to shrink the bloated government and make it run better as well.

If elected, "she has got to use her bully pulpit," said Vincent Cohen, a politically active local lawyer. "She {will be} a people's mayor, not a developers' mayor, not a special-interests' mayor, not a tenants' mayor or a landlords' mayor. She will be a mayor who won because people said, 'We want you to run the show.' That is worth more than millions. It gives her a tremendous leg up."

"Sharon Dixon can do it," said Eddie Williams, president of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, the nation's premier black think tank, "because right now people want her to do it and will support her."

Williams said there is an "aura of dynamism about Dixon's {primary} election, the come-from-behind victory without any money, and getting support from blacks and whites. Most people sense a new beginning for the D.C. government with Sharon Dixon. Most people want to create an aura of competence and efficiency for the government and are willing to work with her for it."

"There are very few things political scientists have proof of and know with certainty," said Richard P. Nathan, provost of Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and a professor of social policy and government management. "But one is: 'Strike while the iron is hot.' Right now, Dixon is hot. The bureaucracy will respond to her if she makes it clear that she is leading it. At the moment, public pressure is on her side."

There's no shortage of skeptics, however. "I don't know how she can reduce 2,000 workers under the current personnel act," said Elijah Rogers, the former city administrator under Mayor Barry. "I think it's premature to talk about reform right now. You've got to let the person develop a program. She may change her perception about what can be done {if} she is elected mayor." During the primary campaign, Dixon released position papers that said she would cut "non-tenured mid- and high-level political appointees not serving the District," as well as "overhaul contract procurements," and give the city auditor more power to scrutinize city agencies.

In addition to cutting excess workers through attrition or by firing them, Dixon will have to look at cutting programs.

Dixon has yet to cite specific city programs or jobs to be cut. "She has not listed any programs she plans to cut," said Sonya Sims, Dixon's press secretary. "We're in the process of meeting to fine-tune our program so we can go forward in the campaign." Sims added that any specific cuts will be announced only after a "management audit" is done to determine which programs and employees are superfluous.

Some financial help may come from Capitol Hill, which for years has kept the basic federal payment to the city flat. Julian Dixon, chairman of the House D.C. appropriations subcommittee, told reporters last week that Sharon Dixon's primary victory is "a new beginning" in the city's delicate relationship with Congress. Political help may also come from a blue-ribbon commission's report on the city's financial problems -- including specific recommendations for program cuts -- that is scheduled to be released in November. The report should make it easier for the winner of the general election to build political support for the cuts it suggests.

City officials, union leaders and city workers are already talking more openly about the problems of an inefficient, overstaffed city government.

District workers describe the government they work in as tripping over its own feet, slow to hire, discipline or fire employees, and full of duplicated work and featherbedding by arrogant employees.

"Dixon was right -- it demoralizes workers to see people picking up a paycheck and not doing anything to earn it," said Roger Wilkins, a George Mason University history professor and long-time Dixon supporter.

District government managers describe a system that makes it difficult for them to hire the best people for jobs, get the best contractor or even decide when to buy a computer.

One agency director said that when he wants to buy a computer he has to ask the city's purchasing department to request the money in its budget. Under such a system, his request for a computer competes with every other city departmental request. As a result, political considerations -- who has more pull with the purchasing department -- may outweigh a possibly critical need for a computer.

"The emphasis needs to be on cleaning up and clarifying lines of authority so that the people in charge of responding to problems have the tools to do the job," said John M. Bayne, deputy administrator of the Income Maintenance Administration. "From my perspective here I have to wait on interagency groups, on {city lawyers}, on the personnel department, I am subject to their bottlenecks as opposed to managing my own problems . . . . We need decentralization of authority with more effective monitoring."

William Lightfoot, an at-large city councilman, said that Dixon may have "a difficult time cutting 2,000 positions right away, but you'd be surprised. I've heard talk from the labor unions that they are already willing to meet and talk with her on ideas for cutting waste and overspending. They want to target middle-managers who aren't doing anything, which is right in line with what Dixon has been talking about."

"We're willing to work with her," said David Schlein, national vice president of District 14 of the American Federation of Government Employees. "Our basic philosophy is we know how the government works better than anyone else because we are the ones who are doing the jobs."

One agency head said the city needs to take a lesson from the tight discipline in the trash-collection and police departments, both well run. Employees of those departments who are not productive are fired. Elsewhere in the government, the agency head noted, any reprimand of an employee requires supervisors to engage in a long, emotionally draining process filled with mindless technicalities.

"Firing one or two people for cause sends a message," the agency head said. "What {Dixon} is doing," observes Roger Wilkins, "is changing the political culture."

That is the essential challenge facing any Washington reformer: revamping not merely the city's government, but its entrenched political culture. For years, the District government has operated on the principle of adding new programs year after year, rarely if ever pausing to justify the cost of existing programs or to consider whether old programs were delivering essential services. In addition, the D.C. political culture gave precedence to the idea that any program that created jobs was virtually its own justification. Once a program was created, criticism of its ineffectiveness was often considered an insensitive slap at the people who held jobs in it.

Under Barry, the city often seemed to function as an employment agency for his political associates. In that culture, the radical idea of deciding what city services were essential to the operation of the government, and which were not, seemed unthinkable. But with Dixon's election, a different political culture has quickly surfaced that admits the idea of cutting the government.

Cutting government has at least three dimensions -- eliminating peripheral programs, getting essential programs to work and then trimming excess personnel. As Matthew Watson, a practicing attorney and former city auditor, puts it, "There are a lot of nice programs that do good things, but they take too much energy and too much money. We've got to get the basics down. And once we are doing them efficiently, then we've got to focus on using fewer employees." Key to all these efforts will be the next mayor's ability to attract good people into the government.

The kind of people needed, according to Rod Boggs, head of the Washington Lawyer's Committee and counsel to Parent's United, the leading public school lobbying group, are those "who have the will to run through all the problems because they really love the city and want to get the job done."

As Wilkins notes, one of Barry's problems was that "he was running a very tired government. {Dixon} is better able to attract new people because of the aura of freshness, openness, new energy and intelligence she brings to government. Those are the things that attract venturesome, idealistic people. Those people bring ideas that other people have been unwilling to try."

But economist Andrew Brimmer, a former member of the Federal Reserve Board, cautions that "she should not assume that every executive there is tainted and worthless. My hunch is there are many people who can be relied on to perform good services if she can get through to them and they can get through to her."

"The jury is out on one important question -- Dixon's political will," said Boggs. "But what does she have to lose by being strong on her pledge to clean house? She has inherited a financial crisis and a crisis of confidence in the government. I have the strong impression there are lots of hands out there willing to help her turn the government around."

"People do want change," said Elijah Rogers, the skeptical former city administrator. "But they want consistent change and consistent leadership. If change is done in an orderly fashion, in a reasonable way, people inside and outside the government will follow. If the bureaucracy and people feel threatened, they will resist.

"Remember, people run the bureaucracy. If you don't get people motivated," Rogers added, "forget the plan."

Juan Williams writes frequently on politics for Outlook.