THE EDUCATION DEPARTMENT begins work this week, with much official celebration and a threat by disgruntled employees to picket the White House. Personnel management is the least flashy but probably the most important task before Secretary of Education Shirley Hufstedler; she is bringing together from five different agencies 7,000 or so people who may or may not want to come, removing many of them from their accustomed offices, superiors, subordinates and perquisities, and trying to mold them into a newly efficient and enthusiastic unit.

The old education bureaucracy -- or much of it anyway -- had acquired a certain reputation for sloth and obstructionism rather than efficiency. And the invention of a new organizational vessel does not guarantee any change for the better. In fact, history teaches that, for the immediate future at least, the organizational change will probably make things worse. The complexity and rigidity of the federal personnel system is almost always underestimated by political reformers in both the executive and legislative branches of government. Many a reorganization has been rendered irrelevant by the fact that the same people showed up in the new office who had made the old office unworkable. For example, in 1974 the Atomic Energy Commission was considered to be too concerned with promoting rather than regulating nuclear power, so it was split into two separate agencies; the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was given the responsibility of overseeing the regulation of the industry. But employees from the AEC staffed both new agencies, and the impluse of the old AEC days to promote, rather than regulate, the nuclear enterprise still permeates the staff of the commission.

The Education Department starts out with 378 senior (GS15 and above) positions, 356 of which are already filled. In order to bring new direction to the place, the secretary might be supposed to want to inject new people into key managerial positions. But even under Civil Service reform, it is impossible to fire anybody. Therefore, the only way to increase the number of open positions is to wait for attrition, or to institute a reduction in force.

Interestingly, both procedures tend to decrease productivity at first. The staff members most likely to leave of their own accord are those so good that they are recruited by someone else -- i.e., just the ones a manager would like to keep. And the rules under which a reduction in force operates protect the most senior employees, moving them to jobs of less importance and squeezing out at the bottom the new -- and lower-paid -- employees. Therefore, a reduction in force always results in higher per-person salary costs. Depressingly often, it also leaves the least energetic, most stick-in-the-mud members of a bureaucracy in place, sacrificing the energy and enthusiasm of the junior employees.

The act creating the Education Department contains a requirement to reduce the staff by 500 people before 1982. This was done, in part, as a reaction to constituent complaints about the frustration of dealing with the old multi-layered education structure. But the requirement to reduce the total numbers of staff did nothing to ease the perverse tangle of Civil Service regulations that make successful regeneration so difficult. More fundamental changes throughout the federal personnel system are needed before that can happen.