Anyone who has ever dealt with the D.C. Labor Department can well understand why the new acting director of that department is experiencing job-shock. After a month in office, Michigan manpower expert William R. Ford says he has found the agency to be a "monster" that ranks "at or near the bottom" nationally in its handling of important public services, such as finding and creating jobs, placing job applicants and paying unemployment compensation. No one knows this better than Mayor Barry, who is counting on Mr. Ford to turn things around in the department.

The "monster," though officially little more than a year old, was created by the last city administration after many years of talking about it -- going back to Walter Washington's commissioner days. Indeed, he was talking about it when he first campaigned for election in 1974; it was supposed to be a better way for the city government to help citizens with their unemployment problems.In a sense, you could say it did help, for Mr. Ford notes that the department now rates No. 2 nationally among all states and other jurisdictions -- in the number of staff people per capita. It also ranks No. 50 in success in placing job applicants. This ineffectiveness was demonstrated all too dramatically this summer, when Mayor Barry's vigorous summer-jobs-for-youth efforts nearly collapsed because of departmental breakdowns.

Fortunately, Mayor Barry seems intent also on improving the department's dealings with the public, which includes out-of-work youths and adults -- people who need government help most. In addition to selecting Mr. Ford to be the department's director -- a nomination the District Council should move quickly to confirm -- the mayor is bringing together local and federal labor department experts to submit recommendations by Nov. 30 on changes that should be made.

One good change would be to quit trying to serve everyone from the department headquarters; as Mr. Ford notes, clients "get lost in the maze." Instead, perhaps several one-stop service centers could be opened in different parts of town. Whatever needs to be done, it simply cannot wait for another string of in-house studies. Nationally and locally, unemployment will continue to present problems enough without any more help in manufacturing them from city hall.