Just over four years ago, two colleagues and I met in a Washington hotel suite to assist President-elect Carter's transition team in planning the reorganization of the federal government, then a top Carter priority. How, we were asked, would you set up and conduct the reorganization planning effort in the new administration? For example, how many people would be needed to staff an office in the White House or the Office of Management and Budget to oversee the reorganization effort? The modus operandi we envisioned for those people was that they would sketch out ideas, then call on officials in the departments to refine them. We suggested a staff of six.

That was the high point of our consultancy with the incoming administration.

Within days, the phone stopped ringing, and over the next few months we watched as President Carter's Reorganization Project heaved into view. It was headed by someone called an Executive Associate Director of OMB who presided over 200 souls caught in a seemingly endless process of becoming. Following as it did on the heels of a transition that was a spectacle of confusion, this organizational innovation provoked veteran bureaucracy-watchers to wonder: Did a president whose first limited efforts at executive leadership were both ineffective and inconsistent with his espoused principles of touch-minded management have a chance of streamlining the federal government, as he promised? That the most visible legacy of President Carter's interest in reorganization is two additional Cabinet-level departments seems to provide the answer.

Alas, the smell of overcooked approaches to public management is in the air again. For six weeks, President-elect Reagan's transition was an auspicious success, impressive for its organization and competence. Or at least so it seemed. But something has gone wrong. The number of transition teams, and the layers of supervision they receive, have grown beyond comprehension. Does the incoming administration really need a fully staffed transition team for the National Endowment for the Humanities or a six-person team to plot the takeover of ACTION?

Not only does the scale of the effort greatly exceed Carter's transition, but it also lacks the funky spontaneity of Hamilton Jordan's exhilarated troops hustling about the city. These Reagan people appear to be disciplined creators of bureaucracy. Moreover, the transition is apparently overrunning its budget, even though most team members are serving without pay. Two million dollars "just doesn't buy what it used to," explained a Reagan spokesman in words sure to be echoed in a hundred budget reviews over the next few months, Guerrilla warfare has broken out between transition factions. People claiming to speak for Reagan have turned up from Singapore to San Salvador. The air is dank with leaks. hA story appeared that a new team of 30 people was being created to sift and asess the reports of the other teams.

What in the world is going on? Does getting the government off the backs of the American people begin with a bloated transition with its own foreign policy whose most visible achievement is a budget deficit?

Many reasons can be offered for these apparent fiascoes early in an administration. Simple inexperience is one. Mistakes will be made by new people who are not practiced at getting organized, but they will get the hang of it and settle down to the purposeful pursuit of the administration's goals. Another reason is that the early going is the time to give people who helped the candidate win an opportunity to be associated with the new administration, maybe even look them over for permanent jobs. Further, large staffs and visible activity are thought to signal high priority. Could President Carter have been taken seriously in his pledge to reorganize the federal government if he had attacked with a squad of six instead of a battalion of 200? Doesn't a Reagan takover require a big, busy transition?

Perhaps. But is this not precisely the kind of behavior that has produced what OMB Director-designate David Stockman called "the excesses of the American superstate"? Are not these the instincts and actions that must be curbed if government is to be restrained and efficient? Excesses begin when inexperience is equated with mere size and bustle, and when more people and more money are thought necessary to achieving better results. Unless something is done to change these habits, unless better ways are found to design and organize governmental activity, the federal government will not change, and its excesses will continue.

An inflated, deficit-ridden transition is not the fault of the usual suspects in the creation of big government: congressional committees and staffs, activist judges, special interest groups or the bureaucracy. It is the handiwork of the incoming administration. Reagan might have signaled his determination -- and ability -- to change the government by announcing that he was not going to spend the entire transition appropriation just because it was available; that he was not going to hire a cast of thousands to produce transition documents that no one would read; that he was, instead, going to ask a few experienced, trusted and resourceful advisers, aided by a small, competent staff (I suggest six), to work with him in preparing to assume power; that he was, in short, going to lead by tough-minded example, substituting quality for quantity, imposing limits. Instead, we have the first Reagan budget deficit.

To point this out now, before the president-elect and his advisers are even officially in power, may seem the kind of churlish carping that accomplishes little other than to convince the newcomers that experienced hands do not want to give them a chance. The president-elect, after all, has been confident, charming, astute and open. Why cavil about his transition? Because an early tendency toward making mistakes without stopping to consider how they could have been avoided becomes ingrained too easily. And too soon, the heavy demands of governing preclude thoughtful reflection on how to govern most effectively. no less than the president-elect's ability to accomplish his goals is at stake.

To change the government, officials of the new administration must learn to do the fundamental tasks of governing not only well but in a way that exemplifies the style to which they would like the entire government to become accustomed. These include, in addition to conducting a transition, such tasks as running a department, managing a crisis and seeing important legislation through to enactment. Our attention will soon be riveted by the high drama of policy and politics. Underlying all, however, will be the routines of governing, of preparation and of execution.

In retrospect, the Carter administration's earliest moves, beginning with the transition, contained vital clues to later problems of preformance. Is the Reagan transition also an example of how he and his advisers intend to preform fundamental tasks of governing? If so, he will not accomplish the changes he has promised. His policies will flounder. It is better that this be a warning sounded at the beginning of an administration than a lesson learned at its end.