Last March Dave Garten, a GS 12 who writes about pork for the Department of Agriculture, spent a week in a Williamsburg hotel learning to relax each muscle from his toes to his head courtesy of the federal government.

Garten says he uses his own deep breathing and other exercises - all taught as part of a course in coping with mid-career stress - to calm himself in such potentially tense situations as a meeting on reducing the sulfa residue in swine. "I feel more self-confidence, more in control now," he said.

Garten's on-the-job training was part of a $1 billion-plus program in which the Federal government tries with uncertain results to retool its civilian work force - a program that underwrites instruction in everything from rocket building and report writing to dealing with anger.

The program nourishes a growing commercial industry of education services that includes training films produced and directed by a former choreographer to Milton Berle.

In this loosely controlled Federal blackboard jungle however critics have charged that as one congressional report putit the value of the schooling is "largely a matter of faith."

There are training management courses and management training courses. The former train the training specialists, and the latter reprsent a currently hot speciality that is supposed to teach managers how to get more [WORD ILLEGIBLE] for the buck out of their workers.

The Agriculture Department course on coping with mid-life career stress is "our most popular" said John Kisler chief of the agency's career development division, which has one of the most active agency training programs.

It's [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] sensitivity thing," he said, "but holding it in Williamsburg gets them just far enough a way that their secretaries can't bother them."

Rob Dryden, a Drug Enforcement Administration official, recently took a 20-hour course in speed reading sponsored by his agency; As a result, he says, he can read those government reports surveys and memos in about 30 percent less time.

At the Labor Department clerk typist; Viola Dickens and automatic data processing trainee Naron Neostic spent a recent workday in the first of four sessions of assertiveness training that they hope will, as Acostia put it, "help me communicate better with my fellow workers and people in general."

Federal managers and training specialists argue that government bureaucrats and technicians, like their private sector counterparts, need occasional reprogramming just to keep up with change. And they point out that the military services spend seven to ten times as much per uniformed employe for training.

While individual employes may point to personal benefits from the training, however, critics in Congress and within the federal program itself say there is really no telling, in most cases, what the taxpayers annual billion-dollar investment buys in improved government performance.

These same critics charge that agencies vary widely in the way they account for the costs of training, and [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] of deciding what training their employes need and assessing exactly what good it does.

"The worth of government training is still largly a matter of faith," concluded the Government Accounting Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress, in one of several reports on the subject.

Training officials in the federal Office of Personnel Management (OPM), who are responsible for monitoring and gulding the training programs governmentwide reported last year that agency accounting systems "do not accommodate training costs. Therefore [We believe] these costs are . . . varied and understated" to an unknown extent.

"This really has to be looked at, and bought under some degree of control," said Dr. Art Naparstek, who has seen the program from the vantage point of a government contractor.

He is a director of the University of Southern California's school of public administration, Washington branch, one of a growing number of university programs that provide training tailor-made for the government.

There was a time when the phrase "government training" evoked a grainy image of World War II G1 training films about disease and etiquette in war zones. Then, 20 years ago, Congress passed an act that authorized across-the-board employe training, with the intention of improving the productivity of the work force.

The law required that the training be job-related, and that agencies, where possinle, hire people who already had the specialized training they needed.

That year 1958, the government spent $1 million to train civilians. The costs jumped rapidly through the years of the space race and the upheavals of the '60s, when the government was actively recruiting, and have remained "stable," officials said, through the cutback years of the '70s.

The most recent figures (for 1977) show that 555,544 federal employes attended 883,087 training "events" during that year.

Of the more than $1.1 billion spent, about $257 million went to pay instructors, tuition, books, travel and other expenses and about $900 million paid employes' salaries while they were away from their jobs and in class. The estimate does not include night classes and certain other types of training.

Some federal training is for skills that can be used only in the government. "For instance, no one else collects federal taxes," Michael Miller, an OPM training specialist, pointed out.

About 40 percent of all federal training was in "specialty or technical" areas, such as air traffic control, taxes and law enforcement. Sizable amounts also focused on administration, analysis, legal, medical, scientific, engineering and clerical skills.

Attitudes and budget allotments directed toward training vary from agency to agency, largely at the discretion of agency, managers and training officers.

"The military have been the greatest stimulator of training - they have a reverence for it - and that attitude carries over into their dealings with their civilian employes." said James Brogan, head of OPM's leadership training office."

Some managers are reluctant to give their employees time away from work for training, while others practice what GAO termed a "laundry list approach," grabbing bodies to fill classes.

The most economics government training is provided at shared inter-agency facilities, such as the Federal Executive Institute in Charlottesville or the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Ga.

However, agencies have shown a reluctance to share facilities. The trend has been to farm out more and more to the private vendors, training officials said, one brandishing a stack sleek training brochures that had come in the morning mail.

"There's quite an industry developing, and it reflects the growing specialization (of skills) in areas that general education hasn't really caught up with" said Brog.

Where, for instance, does a federal contract officer learn his business? The subject was neglected by universities until recently, according to Jim Scanlon of the Sterling Institute.

His Georgetown-based organization stepped in to fill that void and now 95 percent of the students (about 2,500 a year) are federal government workers, most of them from defense agencies, he said.

Because the contracting mechanism has grown so complex, and is used for collateral mission, such as enforcing affirmative action programs, he said, the books of contracting regulations for military and civilian agencies have grown from about 300 pages to about 3,000 each since the early '50s.

"The Defense Department alone has 15,000 civilian professionals handling federal contracts, plus about 3,000 in the uniformed services, and that doesn't even include purchasing agents and procurements clerks."

Training equipment became slicker as the industry grew, enlisting fancy films, movie stars and computers. Some of the training films Sterling uses are produced and directed by Kevin Johnson, formerly a top choreographer for the Milton Berle TV series, Scanlon said.

One West Coast-based organization teaching women how to assert themselves apparently grossed over $20,000 for one day's work in Washington recently, according to Richard Fraser, a training officer for the Department of Agriculture in Hyattsville. He checked the course out, he said, after he received a brochure about it.

At $225 a person, with around 100 paying customers, he said, "it's sort of like drilling for oil. They had a hot topic and a slick brochure - and they struck it rich."

The individual fees were not out of line, he added. "My office has often paid $200, $300, $400 a day per person - bit for small classes of 12 people or so. It's a matter of cost effectiveness. In a case where a contractor is getting fat on the taxpayer, if I were the president, I'd want to take another look and see if I couldn't get the government a reduced rate."

Universities, too, are getting a "heavy subsidy" from federal training money, although no one know exactly how much, officials said.

Some distant schools have opened up-branches here, specializing in government-related subjects, such as the University of Southern California's school of public administration. The school is "coming on like gangbusters," according to a federal training expert.

"I know a lot of people think we're here to make money," said USC's Naparstek. "But we just break even, we pay our way. Our commitment to come was not financial."

The law prohibits agencies from hiring lobbying organizations to teach training courses, officals said, althought the National Rifle Association and similar groups have been known to offer their services. And some training vendors, by their names alone, raise the eyebrows of the enforcement staff.

The American Defense Preparedness Association, for example, recently was conducting a symposium on science and engineering at the Naval Ordnance Laboratory, "most of it classified," said Gen. Frank Hinrichs, its director of technology. This was one of numerous such events the group presents to defense employes, at a typical cost of $100 a person, including meals, he said.

With a membership of 400 corporations and 15,000 independent members, the organization is strictly educational, nonprofit, nonpolitical and "doesn't sell anything," Hinrichs said, "What we do is provide an exchange of information."

Even some of the private contractors who reap the profits criticize aspects of the government's training procedures.

Some training officials "brag about how much money they have to spend and seem to be begging us to charge them more," said a private consultant who has taught courses at several agencies.

"You see all types." said psychologist Craig Wasserman, who teaches assertiveness training at the Labor Department. "Some [training officers] don't ask the right questions, and they end up [WORD ILLEGIBLE] you more than you deserve. I've certainly run across them. But some seem to have a lot more money than others."

GAO investigators found "questionable" the usefulness of certain training authorized by officials of a division of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare in 1976. For example, a general astronomy course had been authorized for a secretary majoring in education in an upward mobility program.

"We think and hope that's ben cleard up," an OPM official said.

Lower paid employes and union officials contend that those who manage the training tend to favor their friends in doling it out. Indeed, official figures show that white and orientel men get a disproportionately high share of training, while women, blacks and American Indian men get smaller shares.

Training officials say, however, that the variation is related to the kind of work an employe does. Engineers and scientists, mostly men, tend to get a lot of training, while clerical workers, mostly women, get less.

Employes and union officials also complain that so-called upward mobility training programs often increase employe frustrations by giving them false expectations. The training is used as a device to "get the pressure off" when there are no openings for promotions, an employe of the Department of Housing and Urban Development said.

"It's a kind of wish-list at many agencies," said a Justice Department training official. "A 'what do you want to be when you grow up' kind of thing. You have to plan ahead for the job slots, and a lot of agencies don't know what planning is."

There is a greater effort now by trainin officials at OPM to "make sure the training is directly addressed to the employe's job," Miller said, and to improve the techniques for evaluating training.

But officials said also that, ultimately, getting a meaningful reading on the benefits of bureaucratic education must be at least as difficult as measuring the fruits of government work itself - and that can be difficult indeed.