DESPITE THE SNEERS about "lazy bureaucrats" and the rest, work as a government employee clearly remains attractive to large numbers of people. In 1979. more than 1 1/4 million people went through some form of competitive examination in the hope of getting a job in the federal government. Overall, about 10 percent were successful. Of the 125,576 people hired as a result of a competition, the PACE (Professional and Administrative Career Examination) was the way to a job for only 6,283, or 5 percent, across the country.

This particular test has been the subject of intense scrutiny and criticism. A suit has been filed in U.S. District Court claiming that, because many more of the white than black or Hispanic applicants receive passing marks, the test is discriminatory.

If it is important -- and it is -- to provide access to federal jobs to well-qualified persons of all racial backgrounds, the question is how best to do that. And one way is not to let the issues get bogged down in arguments over how to change a test so that memebers of all groups end up with a high score.

As the system now works, there are in all 20 different forms of competitive testing to get into the federal service. Several are not tests in the conventional sense -- decisions about an applicant's qualifications are made on the basis of college courses or record of work, and a rating is assigned. For PACE, the scores of all persons who take the test are ranked by number, and agenices that report a vacancy are given the top three names from which to choose. This doesn't happen very often. Fully two-thirds of the jobs for which PACE-takers would be eligible are filled from within the government. People hire other people whom they know. And fully 95 percent of the people who come into permanent jobs from outside the government manage to get there by some means other than PACE.

The point is that no matter what an individual's race, ethnic identification or score on the test, PACE is not a very ggod bet for finding the job he wants. A few people with very high scores will be offered a job. But people are simply more comfortable dealing with the known, and with personal contacts -- and this is the realm in which affirmative efforts to recruit minority candidates should be concentrated.

Increasingly, alternative ways into the government that short-circuit the unwiedly personnel system have been put together, and large numbers of well-qualified minority employees are finding their way into the system. These alternative ways include the presidental management intern program, cooperative work-study for college students and temporary jobs later converted to permanent ones. The Army and Social Security Administration are experimenting with on-the-job training and assessment for new professionals.

This is an encouraging sign. Affrimative action which is often blamed for multiplying paper work and taking hiring decisions out of the hands of the managers who have to live with the conseuences, seems to be having a precisely opposite result -- making federal employment practices human.