DALTON WILSON is, we fear, about to become an example - for the wrong reasons. Mr. Wilson is the Agriculture Department GS-15 who was described in a Wall Street Journal article (which was reprinted in The Post) as sitting with his feet on his clean desk, reading real-estate ads because he had little to do - and who has just gotten an agency award for "exceptional initiative and creativity." The coincidence seems to bear out many suspicions about the federal bureaucracy. So the award to the do-nothing manager may well wing up in the folklore about governmental silliness and waste, along with the Navy study of frisbees, and other perennials.

The real point of the story, it seems to us, is different. From what we've learned, Mr. Wilson, a 52-year-old career employee in the Foreign Agricultural Service, came back last year from service as an agricultural attache in South America. He was given the nebulous title of assistant to the assistant administrator for management and was assigned to evalute the agency's information programs about worldwide production and marketing of soybeans and related commodities. The topic, while hardly world-shaking, is not inane. With soybean exports running around $6 billion, the effective transmittal of information to farmers, traders and so on is a matter of legitimate concern.

Well, Mr. Wilson did his evaluation well enough so that he and five part-time helpers won one of 49 special achievement awards given by the agency this month. In talking to a Wall Street Journal reporter who happened by one afternoon, though, Mr. Wilson apparently belittled his work as undemanding and insignificant. Besides, he had his feet on his desk at the time. So he became the lead example in the article about Agriculture Department lethargy.

If Mr. Wilson really exemplifies anything, it may be a group of civil servants who are usually anonymous: the middle-aged, middle-level bureaucrats who do middling work in mundane agencies and have become resigned to the lack of excitment, incentive or even busyness in their jobs. Such demoralization occurs in every bureaucracy. According to the Journal article, it has become pandemic at Agriculture, where any sense of mission or urgency allegedly faded years ago.

Though that may overstate the mood at the Agriculture Department, it does point to a major management challenge that the Carter administration now confronts. Cynics maintain that tired branches of the bureaucracy can't be revitalized, given all the rigidities of civil service and the resistance that will come from self-protective individuals and agencies. We'd like to think, however sanguine it may sound, that Dalton Wilson and many others would welcome changes that offer more chances for productive work. Some reorganizations may help; soem redefining of agencies' purposes seems vital. Finally, though, this is a human challenge. If Mr. Carter and his associates, through leadership and insight, can instill new spirit in old agencies, they can improve both federal performance and public attitudes toward government.