ABOUT 40,000 people work for the District government - nearly all of them hired and working under different, often confusing, rules. Many abide by the Civil Service Commission's policies, while others adhere to various local codes for police officers, teachers, fire fighters and the like. Congress recognized this mess for what it was and put a provision in the city's home-rule charter calling for local officials to straighten things out by 1980. That's what Councilman Arrington Dixon and his City Council committee have been working on for more than four months.

They were getting on with the job quite nicely until the other day when, all of a sudden, the committee got cold feet and tabled a measure that would go a long way toward clarifying standards for job conduct, salary negotiation procedures and health and safety requirements. Perhaps one of the most important aspects of the bill was that it authorized the mayor to hire and fire directors of government agencies. As it now stands, most high-ranking officials do not serve "at the pleasure of the mayor," and therefore do not have to resign at the start of a new city administration.

As with any far-reaching measure, there are undoubtedly things in Mr. Dixon's proposal that committee members wanted to refine or revise (a provision calling for preferential treatment for veterans is one that comes to mind). But this legislation is too important to be pigeonholed indefinitely. Council members should go back to work on the bill with a view to passing it before they adjourn in late July. That way, some parts of the measure could be in effect by January 1979 - just in time for the inauguration.