Thanks to Jimmy Carter's civil service overhaul, Ronald Reagan will have a greater opportunity than any new president in recent history to reshape the federal bureaucracy according to his own design.

The Civil Service Reform Act that Carter prodded through Congress two years ago gives a new president the chance to reach considerably deeper than Carter or any modern predecessor could into the executive departments' organizations charts and to replace many career bureaucrats with people committed to the new administration's programs. If Reagan takes advantage of that power, he may be able to hack his way through the thicket that almost every recent president has complained of -- bureaucratic resistance to new ways of doing things.

In addition to the 2,700 political appointees Reagan can name to senior positions in the government, he will have the authority to transfer 8,500 more federal exployes in the "Senior Executive Service" -- the top layer of the permanent bureaucracy that had been untouchable until the 1978 law.

In practice, this means that in a typical executive branch division or bureau, the new president can handpick not only the director and one or two top assistants, but also a dozen or so chiefs of working-level offices.

That was one of the purposes of the civil service reform," says John Scholzen of the federal Office of Personnel Management. "To eliminate the ability of the entrenched bureaucracy, if that's the phrase you want to use, to block programs . . . The new administration can move in somebody to replace a person who's resisting a new policy. And just the knowledge that you can be transferred -- common sense tells you that people are going to do less blocking if they know that."

The bill Carter worked hard to get through Congress is the new wave of a century-long cycle of reform and counterreform of the federal civil service. Until the administration of Chester A. Arthur, who was inaugurated in 1881, there was no job protection for federal workers, and the transition to a new president and a new party generally meant that everyone's job was on the block. To replace the "spoils systems" with a merit system, Congress passed the Pendleton Act in 1883 establishing civil service jobs not subject to presidential whim.

Gradually, the desirable goal of merit, appointment led to the undersirable result of ossified bureaucracy and a career government strongly resistant to change. Soon after John F. Kennedy entered the White House in 1961, he complained to a friend that working with the bureaucracy was like dealing with a foreign power. When Carter was elected four years ago, there were 2,700 executive branch jobs he could fill and 1.8 million more beyond his reach.

Under the new law, about 8,500 slots throughtout the executive branch -- jobs previously ranked GS16 through GS18 -- were collected into a "Senior Executive Service." People in those jobs have a chance for higher pay and for bonuses not previously available. But they are also subject to transfer to another job or agency whether they want to move or not.

An employe in that status is entitled to a 120-day delay if he wants, but after that he can be moved and another senior employe can be put in his slot.

When this provision was being debated in Congress, federal employe groups expressed a fear that a new Cabinet secretary or administration would transfer big groups of senior officials to obscure, unimportant agencies, where they would be left with nothing to do. In the world of federal personnel management, an agency used as the repository for such tranferees is called a "turkey farm."

To date, the Carter administration has not invoked the transfer authority extensively, according to federal personnel experts, and there is not yet a clearly identified "turkey farm" in Washington.

Officials of the Reagan transition office are not talking about whether or not the new president plans to exercise this authority to shape a bureaucracy responsive to his programs. However, the three dozen transition teams sent into specific agencies have been asked, among other things, to pinpoint the offices and divisions that will likely be on the cutting edge of policy offices and divisions that will likely be on the cutting edge of policy change.

The transition teams at the various agencies have been directed to prepare initial action plans for the transfer of government by next Monday. Additional reports will be due from the teams every two weeks thereafter, and early in January the teams will present final briefing books to the new agency heads Reagan selects.

The civil service change makes it slightly easier for the new administration to fire career federal employes than it has been in the past, but termination is still a cumbersome process -- purposely so, so that employes can be protected from arbitrary or politically motivated retribution from superiors.

But Reagan can sweep out of office the 2,700 people now holding "Schedule C," or politically appointed, federal jobs. Transition workers have been telling the senior people in most agencies that they will, in fact, be replaced.

The official guidebook to these 2,700 jobs -- a big paperback formally known as "Policy and Supporint Positions," but informally called "The Plum Book" -- will go on sale today at Government Printing Office bookstores.