President Carter sent to Congress yesterday a complex, sweeping plan to overhaul the civil service and make the vast federal work force more efficient and responsive to presidential direction.

In what he described as the "most sweeping reform of the civil service system" since its birth in 1883, Carter asked Congress to approve proposals to make it easier and faster to hire, assign and fire federal employes and to reward top-ranking civil servants who perform their jobs well.

The president's nationally televised public announcement of the proposals at the National Press Club here was the beginning of a highly orchestrated effort to sell his plan to the American public, Congress and the federal bureaucracy that Carter had promised to tame during his campaign for president.

"I came to Washington with the promise -- and the obligation -- to help rebuild the faith of the American people in our government," Carter said. "We want a government that can be trusted, not feared; that will be efficient, not mired in its own red tape; a government that will respond to the needs of American people and not be preoccupied with needs of its own."

Calling the present civil service system a "tangled webof complicated rules and regulations that have served to stifle the so-called merit system, Carter said it can take a federal supervisor as long as three years "merely to fire someone for just cause. . . "

"You cannot run a farm that way, you cannot run a factory that way and you certainly cannot run a government that way," he told a Press Club luncheon audience of journalists and a few members of Congress.

Carter's plan would, among other things, create an elite corps of up to 9,200 top managers who would volunteer to trade some civil service job security for a chance at higher pay and bonuses for superior performances.

The plan would limit by law the percentage of political appointees in top positions (to 10 percent, the current proportion) but would give agency heads more discretion in deciding where those appointees would be placed.

As Civil Service Commission Chairman Alan K. Campbell pointed out in a press briefing following the president's speech, the plan would make a fundamental change in the job concept: "We are moving from grade-in-position to grade-in-person. People no longer own their positions, but will carry their rank with them."

Responding to well-publicized attempts by previous administrations to "politicize" the bureaucracy through end-runs around merit hiring procedures, the president's plan claims to balance increased power for top officials and middle management in the bureaucracy by providing a fairer and more efficient system for protecting employes against such abuses by their bosses.

The plan would split the present Civil Service Commission into two agencies -- one in the White House to manage the bureaucracy more tightly and an independent agency to protect employe rights and interests.

The plan also would revise federal labor-relations procedures and create a special counsel with subpoena powers to protect dissident employes known as whistle-blowers.

One controversial element of Carter's plan is his proposal to limit the preferential advantage in federal hiring now given to nondisabled veterans. Currently, these veterans get preference any time they apply for service jobs. Carter's plan would give them special treatment for only 10 years after they leave the military.

Carter's plan would also make more difficult the much-criticized practice of 'double-dipping' -- senior military officers who retire with pension benefits and then join the federal government to collect a second federal paycheck. Those military officers would no longer get any preference in federal hiring.

"Current rules often impede the hiring of qualified women, minorities and the handicapped by giving veterans a lifetime advantage under civil service laws -- far beyond the benefits provided under other veterans programs which are designed to ease the readjustment from military to civilian life," the president said.

The announcement of the plan came after a seven-month round of studies, public meetings, consultations by a Carter administration task force with thousands of organizations and persons both in and out of government.

Veterans groups and some federal employes unions are expected to lobby heavily against certain elements of the plan, but the Carter administration says it has attracted a "unique alliance" in its support.

Adopting a tactic from its Panama Canal treaty efforts, the White House has set up a legislative task force to serve as "liaison" with the public and the press in pushing its civil service reform package, according to Steven Simmons of the White House domestic policy staff. "We're learning. . . he said.

Among the groups indicating varying degrees of support for the president's plan are business groups such as Chamber of Commerce and the Committee for Economic Development, citizen's groups such as Ralph Nader's and Common Cause, the National Association of Commissions for Women, the National Civil Service League and the AFL-CIO and its member union, the American Federation of Government Employees, which is the largest federal employes union.

Several presidents have tried, in about 20 major efforts since 1937, to make similar changes in the federal personnel system. Indeed, Carter's plan resurrects elements of previous studies.

Nevertheless, Carter and his aides believe they have an unprecedented chance for success, because of a rare combination of influences that exist now.

These include public dissatisfaction with present government management practices, a Congress that seems open to change, abuses of the merit system in recent years and the president's own active support for the measures, according to the Civil Service Commission's Campbell, who has served as the president's point man in selling the package.

The administration team has walked a minefield of bureaucratic passions in its effort to sell the plan, citing instances of inefficiency and incompetence in the federal workforce to carry out its programs.

"We strongly believe the problem is not the people in the system, but the system itself," Campbell emphasized yesterday.

Following are some of the elements in what Carter has termed "the centerpiece of government reorganization during my term in office." Senior Executive Service SES

About 9,000 federal supervisors, those who make $42,000 to $50,000, political appointees and careerists, could volunteer for this program. It would offer them private corporation-style bonuses for superior performance or a speedy dismissal for poor work.

They could earn bonuses of up to 20 percent of their pay (more typically around 6 percent) but not more than $54,500, and no more than half of them could get bonuses in any given year.

This program uses a "carrot and stick" incentive system, in effect, to make top managers more responsive to their political bosses, as well as more efficient.

While it can be tricky judging a federal manager's performance without the private-sector yardstick of profit-and-loss, administration spokesmen said, the reasons why certain federal managers get bonuses would be published, along with the manager's names in the Federal Register. Incentive Pay

Length of service will no longer guarantee periodic pay raises for about 72,500 managers and supervisors in grades 13 through 15. Agencies will be able to "relate pay to performance" under the proposed plan.

Proposals for dramatic changes in the way the rest of the federal work-force is paid are still being studied and could be presented later this year, according to officials. Firing Process

Once a manager fires an employe, the worker would face a "quicker and clearer" appeals process.

"There would be fewer levels to go through, which means that managers would be more willing to move in that direction if it seemed called for," Campbell said. "The changes may not actually increase the number of employes who get fired. . . but simply create an environment in which they are inclined to be more productive."

Under the current system, a secretary who "showed up drunk every day and couldn't do her work," as one reporter hypothesized, would go through the following process, according to Campbell: The employer's collection of evidence about her, a 30-day notice during which she could respond, actual dismissal, and a succession of four appeal levels including court action.

Under the new system, following actual removal, she would get only one shot at an appeal before a newly created, independent board. Splitting the Commission -- 10 pt poster

One half the Civil Service Commission would become an independent Merit Protection Board, under bipartisan leadership. Board members would serve in overlapping, nonrenewable seven-year terms. They would hear and decide most types of employe appeals and complaints, such as that of the fired secretary mentioned above.

A special counsel attached to the board, with subpoena powers, could investigate and prosecute people for illegal political activities or personnel practices, and would be charged with protecting from reprisals, the whistle blowers, employees who expose waste and wrongdoing in government.

The other half of the commission would become a sister to the Office of Management and Budget under the wing of the White House. It would help the president manage his work-force just as the OMB manages money, officials explained. Hiring, Staffing Tenure

The plan would let each agency do its own hiring, instead of having to go through the Civil Service Commission in a red-tape ridden procedure that now can take six or eight months. An agency also would be able to select from a wider range of candidates based on federal exam scores.