THE OFFICE of Personnel Management won't win any popularity contest this week among the federal work force. The OPM's late call for federal employees to stay home on Tuesday morning caught many of them on the streets or in their cars in the middle of the worst snowstorm since 1996. It also didn't help OPM's standing among federal workers when word got around that the official who makes the awesome decision to shut down the government because of bad weather was on leave, far from her command post. However, OPM Director Janice Lachance, speaking in her own defense, said, "I'm always on the end of the phone for these calls. It doesn't matter where I am." Well, let's see about that.

As Ms. Lachance's OPM staff, the National Weather Service, Metro and state and local officials were holding a conference call early Tuesday morning to assess the weather's severity, she was in Council Bluffs, Iowa, having been up to her elbows in caucus-goers the night before serving as a precinct captain for Vice President Gore's campaign. That location may be of small moment to Ms. Lachance. But it is certainly an eye-opener when the head of the federal civil service leaves town to become an active participant in a partisan election. It turns out that Ms. Lachance wasn't carrying the flag alone. At least three other OPM staffers, including the director's senior policy adviser, Mark Hunter, also worked the Iowa Democratic caucus weekend in behalf of Mr. Gore.

We are aware that Congress substantially amended the Hatch Act in 1993 to permit most federal workers, including OPM employees, to engage in many types of previously prohibited political activity. It may be true, too, that previous OPM directors, who are political appointees, not civil servants, have played active roles in partisan politics, and that Ms. Lachance paid her own way to Iowa. That notwithstanding, the OPM director ought to consider the effect on civil servants and on the public's respect for government service when the head of the government's central personnel office is engrossed in partisan campaigning. Above all else, the OPM is supposed to protect the integrity of the civil service, to make sure that federal workers feel insulated from partisan considerations that might affect their hiring, pay, promotions and benefits. Prudence would seem to require that the OPM director refrain from getting mixed up in electioneering, even though she is legally entitled to do so.

Yesterday Ms. Lachance said, "There is nothing in my seven years with this agency to show that my partisanship has interfered with any of my decisions." No argument there. But it might be better for the nation, and the daily lives and labors of federal employees, if the OPM director worried more about the reengineering of government than the engineering of Al Gore's presidential campaign. Mr. Hunter said yesterday that "Janice Lachance has no future plans to travel during the primary season." That's a good call.