PERHAPS the most innovative part of the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 was the creation of the Senior Executive Service. It was an effort to introduce into government part of the system of rewards and punishments that exists in big corportions. But the reaction to the first round of cash bonuses paid to some members of that new service raises doubts as to how long it can survive.

The idea behind the SES is simple. It is that a high-ranking government executive who does an outstanding job ought to be paid more than one who does an average or poor job. One way to do that -- the way adopted by Congress two years ago -- is to give him a bonus, just as many corporations give bonuses to their outstanding executives.

When that idea was discussed in the abstract, most people thought it sounded good. That was particularly true because executives could not become eligible for the bonuses unless they gave up some of their traditional Civil Service rights. Employees in the high ranks -- GS16 and above -- could join the SES by, among other things, forgoing regular pay increases and subjecting themselves to more rigorous performance reviews and immediate removal from their jobs for unsatisfactory work.

Now that the idea had been put into operation, however, that trade-off seems to have been forgotten. The bonuses are being criticized by many politicians (and journalists) as payoffs to cronies and a way, legally but unethically, to get around the pay cap Congress has unwisely placed on federal salaries.

Some of that criticism, no doubt, is justified. Somewhere in the bureaucracy there are bound to be abuses of any new method of compensation, especially one in which the standards by which deserving executives should be selected are still being developed. There will be abuses and complaints even after the system has been completed.

The ultimate test of the new SES is not whether a few people got bonuses who shouldn't have, but rather whether the cash rewards spur senior government workers to perform better or whether they help the government keep outstanding executives it would otherwise lose to private industry. The program is too new to permit even tentative judgments on those questions. It would be too bad if the current eagerness of so many people to find fault with the bureaucracy kept this program from even reaching a point where it was ready to be judged on its merits.