There are important differences between big business and big government--differences in how success is measured, in how decisions are made, and so forth. In one obvious respect, however, business and government are alike: both depend on people to get the job done. If the employees of a company or agency are alienated and bitter, they won't do a very good job.

As any corporate executive will appreciate, including the skilled and resourceful businessmen who play major roles in the Reagan administration, this is as true for the Department of Health and Human Services as it is for General Electric, as valid for the Interior Department as it is for the Bank of America. And it is especially the case with regard to upper-level managers, the senior career people whose experience and energy get the job done anywhere.

Those top people are leaving government in droves. Since 1977, Newsweek reports, there has been a 500 percent increase in the number of top employees in the 55-to-59 age group retiring. Nineteen out of 20 workers in that bracket retired last year. NASA says most of its space shuttle team, for example, will soon be gone. Nor are those who remain moved, by and large, to extend themselves. The result is a quiet, almost unobserved government crisis of competence and commitment.

That crisis can only be understood within a larger framework: the conviction on the part of our elected officials for the past decade that government--and the men and women within it--is the root cause of social and economic problems.

Every group tends to reflect and be influenced by society's perception of it, career government people no less than blacks, Hispanics or women. As the larger population, misled by its elected leaders, scorns its servants, so will its servants react to that scorn through increasing alienation and demotivation.

Office of Personnel Management Director Donald Devine recently said that Senior Executive Service members--the government's top career people--should not be involved in formulating policy. This view is not only archaic, it is destructive, for it would deprive policy-makers of the best views of their most informed staff. While final policy decisions should and would be made by the politicians and their appointees, are the pols so insecure that they cannot listen to other voices? Devine's view, while widespread in this administration, has been rejected in some agencies--Treasury, for example.

A small matter of bad faith: Originally, half the SES men and women were eligible for bonuses. Now only one out of five are. Grafting a private-sector type bonus system onto a traditional civil service is not an overnight job. Allegations of mismangement and unfairness--both warranted and unwarranted--were to be expected. Giving up on the system before it has been fairly tried would be a mistake.

The $50,112 pay cap, no higher than the salaries of many subordinates, forces SES people to ask themselves why they are taking so much added heat and pressure.

I'm not sure what can be done about the mind-set of many Reagan officials--not much different from the Carter crowd, actually. But I suggest that professional organizations such as the National Academy of Public Administration and the American Society for Public Administration can do something. And the academic community can do something. That is to respond, constructively and with dignity, when a government official or the press expresses opinions or reveals "facts" that are unsound or untrue. Two examples:

1.Devine's statement about keeping top career people from participating in policy-making should have provoked protests from all quarters. It did not.

2.The stream of misleading terms ("burgeoning bureaucracy" and "ever-increasing size of government") should be countered by the Office of Personnel Management's own figures. These reveal that the ratio of government employees to the general population over the last 25 years has been fairly stable. Nor has the growth in government expenditures been out of line as a percentage of the gross national product, as compared with other developed nations.

Few senior civil servants would opt to join SES today if they had another chance to decide. Indeed, they and other senior careerists are beginning to behave like blue-collar unionists. Who can blame them? If they don't band together to protect their interests, who will? The professional societies and the academics have not.

The Carter-Reagan view of government-as-enemy is bad for this nation. While we should never act as single-minded advocates for the bureaucracy, we should be advocates for sound government. If that involves criticizing the bureaucracy, fine. If that demands resisting mindless anti-government and anti-careerist rhetoric, we should act with equal vigor.