UNDER THE INCENTIVE program for civil servants, Uncle Sam is not supposed to be either Santa Claus or Ebenezer Scrooge. The cash handed out by directors of federal departments and agencies is intended to do what most corporate bonus programs do: encourage innovation and reward outstanding performances. The awards were never intended to increase the paychecks of selected employees or use up surpluses in agency payroll accounts.

Down at the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation, however, it appears that Uncle Sam is acting like Santa. Fourteen of that minor agency's 38 employees got achievement awards last year. Without disparaging the work of any of these people, that, it seems to us, is overloading the system. It is unlikely that one small agency could recruit so strong a staff or produce so much outstanding work as those numbers suggest.

Elsewhere in the government, the numbers sound as if Uncle Sam were playing Scrooge. While the numbers of awards given out (one of every seven employees got one) seems much too high, the average amount ($200) is much too low. That is not enough to either reward adequately the outstanding work this program was created to recognize or encourage future outstanding performances.

The incentive program is one of the better ideas that has come along to help improve the bureaucracy. The total amount granted to all civil servants this year -- $25 million -- is hardly excessive. If it encourages hard and thoughtful work, as it is supposed to, that money will have been at least as well spent as any other part of the federal budget.

But the weakness of any flexible bonus system -- and the incentive program must be flexible if it is to work well -- is illustrated by the record of the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation. When 37 percent of the employees of an agency get bonuses, something is wrong -- not right.