ACCORDING TO a Department of Health, Education and Welfare task force, the department's own affirmative-action program is a mess. Poorly planned from the beginning, it has been ignored by HEW's top officials and ridiculed by its employees. Despite some gains made since the program was initiated seven years ago, women and minorities still are concentrated in the department's lower grades. White men have most of the high-salaried upper-grade jobs. And the process for disposing of complaints of discrimination is "egregiously slow." The task force's report is a devstating comment on the federal agency that has been most relentless in requiring other institutions in the society to make great exertions to affirmative-action goals for hiring or otherwise giving an unaccustomed break to women and minorities.

But simply to smirk at HEW's own failure to practice what it preaches would be to miss the report's real meaning: It illustrates precisely how to make an affirmative-action program fail.

One task of an affirmative-action program, at HEW as elsewhere, is to prepare women and minorities to compete on a reasonably equal basis for positions previously closed off to them by intentional or unintentional discrimination. Seeking that equality of opportunity, not mere "representation," is a somewhat vague and constitutionally suspect notion of the right mission. The second imperative of such a program, or rather, for the people in charge of it, is to gain the support of those being asked to hire and promote women and minorities. HEW has failed at both tasks, according to the report, because nobody at the top cared whether the program was operating smoothly and meeting its goals - which is precisely the charge HEW has leveled at other institutions. As the experience at HEW show, a lack of commitment to affirmative action at the top is likely to result in a lack of cooperation in meeting its goals from the ranks. The end result is failure.

HEW Secretary Joseph Califano says there now exists a positive commitment among his staff to make affirmative action work at HEW. And he says the recommendations the task force has come up with will significantly improve the program's operation. Well, we'll see. HEW, which has so forcefully required that other institutions make affirmative efforts to employ and promote more women and minorities, should require no less of itself.