Back in the days when Jimmy Carter was pushing deregulation, the Office of Management and Budget offered an answer to complaints that government was telling businessmen how to make their products. From now on, OMB said, purchasing agencies should rely more on voluntary industry standards, and all agencies should cooperate with standard-setting groups.

In theory, industry should have been pleased. But when government turned over its policeman's hat to trade associations and standard-setting bodies, it set a few standards for the standard-setters.

The issue was control. Businessmen want maximum freedom to decide how a refrigerator should be built or what kind of guard should be put on a power saw. More control of standards development meant more control over the cost and marketability of their products.

But the government rules talked about open meetings, grievance procedures and public notices--all of which meant sharing control of standards development.

Trade associations and standard-setting groups that complied would be put on a government list. Those that didn't, wouldn't. Excluded groups could not take advantage of the government's scientific expertise and support services. No federal participation would be allowed in their deliberations.

But to business, the saving grace of OMB's standards policy was that it did not go as far as the Federal Trade Commission seemed ready to. The FTC had proposed even more stringent rules, in part to keep businessmen from writing a standard that would keep competing products off the market. Viewed in this light, OMB's plan was a compromise.

Enter the Reagan administration. Exit the compromise.

Among the first regulations suspended after the inauguration ceremonies were Commerce Department rules implementing OMB's policy. Now the policy itself is under review. Sources predict that, when it reemerges in several weeks, it will be shorn of many of the requirements designed to keep the process open. In addition, the government will probably drop the policy of producing a list of groups that comply.

Consumer activists worry that the new version will not only keep government from setting standards for the goods it buys ($110 billion worth in fiscal 1980), but eventually could bar regulatory agencies from setting standards for what the rest of the country buys.

The concept of standardization was born late in the Industrial Revolution as an efficiency measure. Railroad owners for example, had to contend with 20 different gauges of track, and out-of-town firefighters who came to battle the big Baltimore fire of 1904 discovered that their hoses wouldn't fit the hydrants.

So groups like the Philadelphia-based American Society for Testing and Materials and the American National Standards Institute in New York were organized. By the mid-1960s, engineering standards emphasizing uniformity were joined by standards promoting product safety.

The two large nonprofit standard-setting groups, ASTM and ANSI, set thousands of standards for everything from plate glass to ball bearings to electric wiring. They charge members an annual fee (usually $1,000 in ANSI's case, usually $350 in ASTM's) and sell the books in which their standards are compiled (ASTM has 48 volumes.) The standards are developed by committees representing industry, academia, government and consumer groups.

While the standards are voluntary, many become incorporated in state and local laws, such as building safety codes. ANSI's Bill Rockwell estimates 75 percent of that group's safety standards have become mandatory somewhere.

Besides the two largest groups, there are more than 400 smaller standard-setting bodies, most run by trade associations or technical groups. Some belong to ANSI or ASTM, and some use the same consensus procedures to develop standards. But others are less open and they produced the loudest outcry against the OMB circular announcing its policy.

"Smaller groups don't have the wherewithal to publish notices and circulate them widely--they're the ones who . . . took a strong stand against the circular," said ANSI's Rockwell. "We were in favor of it because we felt it would encourage more companies and government agencies to work with us." ASTM officials agreed: "We've already been doing things the way government wants," said president Bill Cavanaugh.

But groups like the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers demurred. Association spokesman William Comstock said, "We preferred having the due process provisions out . . . OMB was trying to put a multitude of standards organizations that operate in a multitude of socially acceptable ways under one set of regulations."

One government standards expert who asked not to be identified took a jaundiced view of such complaints. "Trade associations generally develop standards that address the needs of their members rather than the needs of consumers," he said.

But that is not the view of those in government who can make the difference in the decision. Commerce Secretary Malcolm Baldrige has publicly opposed the listing plan, saying he sees no "systematic abuse" of the due process provisions. The revised policy, said another Commerce official, "should fit the Reagan administration philosophy--working cooperatively with industry to solve problems instead of being antagonistic."