IS WASHINGTON ready for a "Whistle Blower of the Year" award? Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D- Colo.) apparently thinks so, since she drafted an item that slipped into the final budget reconciliation to provide bonuses of $20,000 for as many as 50 whistle blowers annually. News of the scheme in Monday's Post followed the report last Friday that America's most notable recent whistle blower, Pentagon official A. Ernest Fitzgerald, had settled his lawsuit against Richard Nixon out of court. Mr. Fitzgerald had charged the former president with having personally ordered his dismissal after he testified before Congress about unreported Air Force cost overruns.

The dilemma lies in defining whistle blowing. This is because for every reliable government gadfly willing to spill the beans on serious scandal, there exists a small legion of restless souls within the bu reaucracy waiting for an opportunity to make public mischief. Who is to judge the difference?

Certainly not the agencies being criticized. Their top officials cannot be expected to respond with saintly judiciousness to allegations of fraud or malfea sance directed against their own practices, though in recent years some have recognized the need for serious internal review of such complaints. To assist a whistle blower in fending off the inevitable attacks, the most useful practical step would be to strengthen--both in money and personnel--the Merit System Protection Board's Office of Special Counsel.

This office was established during the Carter administration to protect bureaucratic informants against reprisal. It gained in potential importance in 1980 with a ruling that, if the board decides an agency has acted irregularly toward one of its employees, the agency can be forced to pay the aggrieved whistle blower's attorney's fees. Reassurance against being proved correct but still enduring personal ruin be cause of endless legal fees is a far more useful incentive than cash awards or public ceremonies.

Still, whistle blowing may have become too popular for its own good. Back in the days when Joe McCarthy bragged about his "loyal American under ground" that snitched on its superiors or in Otto Otepka's heyday, Americans on the liberal left protested bitterly (and, for the most part, correctly) against the whistle blowers' breach of faith with their oath as federal officials. During the Johnson and Nixon years, it became the conservatives' turn to complain, as many such persons emerged from the ranks of those disillusioned with the Vietnam War. In fairness, those who perform government service--then as today--must strive to maintain a balance between their responsibilities to an administration and their obligations as Americans to expose corruption. Unfortunately, the Schroeder plan upsets that balance by placing too great a financial premium on whistle blowing, one more likely to attract a malcontent's obsessions than a genuine act of civic conscience.