THE NEW Foreign Service Act, setting down the internal procedures by which the country's diplomatic corps is to be run, involves a good deal more than housekeeping (and house cleaning). It is an intriguing demonstration of the extent to which powerful social currents in the outside world have penetrated what was formerly considered an almost private bureaucratic preserve.

It takes only a few conversations with the people involved to learn that diplomatic family life is under heavy siege. Living overseas can no longer be counted on to provide the old amenities, and wives are increasingly reluctant to be treated as unpaid aides without interests or careers of their own. It is not possible to eliminate all strains of this sort in families of which one member chooses a diplomatic career, but it is possible to try to ease them and the new bill does that. In one especially innovative provision, it offers survivor benefits for a diplomat's ex-wife whom events may have left out in the cold. Other provisions focus on the new requirements for minority employment.

The up-or-out tradition in State Department personnel policy, regarded by some as the badge of an elite professional service, has come to be regarded by others as the license for capricious management. As a result, a demand has grown for due-process guaranttees to help individuals with grievances. Some dissenters now see the new bill's substantial pay increases, raising Foreign Service officers to levels comparable to those elsewhere in the government, as a payoff for a grant of excessive personnel discretion to State Department management. Management responds that new procedures incorporate regular performance measures of every Foreign Service employee, with the reviews to be conducted by peers and public members alike.

The number of employees affected by the new measure is scarcely more than the Pentagon's sick list on a bad flu day. But the public has a broad interest in seeing that personnel practices in the Foreign Service, as elsewhere in the government, meet contemporary standards of fairness and professionalism. No bill can resolve all the tensions inherent in an individual's operating within a bureaucracy, but this bill does express as much of a consensus as it has been been possible to achieve in years of close application.