MOST PEOPLE -- at least when they get down to cases -- will agree that the federal government does some very useful things. Not just the obvious ones, such as delivering mail and pension checks, but also seeing to it that the meat you eat isn't tainted, that the water you drink is relatively clean and that someone doesn't sell you phony bonds. Most people, however, would like to have those things accomplished more cheaply and efficiently, and current policies for dealing with federal workers are working toward quite an opposite result -- a bureaucracy that costs just as much but does its job much less well.

Hit from every side by one threat or another, the federal work force is rapidly becoming immobilized in some important respects. Almost every career executive who can is electing early retirement, the exodus of skilled technicians and professionals is reaching alarming proportions, and it is a fair guess that most other workers would get out if they had a decent alternative.

Not all the fault for this unhappy situation is the administration's. Congress has done its part by refusing to raise the lid on federal executive salaries --while dealing itself a backdoor raise through generous business expense deductions and fewer limits on outside earnings. Congress has also impeded the bonus and merit pay provisions of the recent civil service reform package that could help in recruiting and retaining able administrators and other professionals.

The administration, however, must take credit for the pervasive fear now disrupting the work of many agencies. Federal workers have grown used to the anti-bureaucracy speeches that have become a fixture of presidential campaigns over the past decade or so. This, however, is the first administration that has backed up its verbal assaults with real action. Four thousand workers have already been laid off. The threat of Christmas-time firings hangs over thousands more whose jobs depend on congressional reaction to the administration's requests for additional cuts in operating budgets this year. In some agencies, moreover, layoff policies have been designed and carried out with a good deal more feeling for the convenience of top officials than for the hardship of affected workers.

Over the next two years, the administration plans to cut 75,000 jobs--perhaps many more if additional budget savings are needed. These will be heavily concentrated in the relatively small part of the non-defense bureaucracy not performing absolutely essential functions. Since the federal work force has been declining for several years, many important functions are already understaffed--especially those where highly trained specialists are needed. Relying on reductions-in-force and attrition to cut personnel will produce a top-heavy work force (because of seniority rules) and acute shortages of the most able and skilled workers, who can easily find jobs elsewhere.

There is surely a need to increase efforts to weed out incompetents and laggards in the bureaucracy, to modernize the skills of many workers and to move people from overstaffed or declining areas to those that are undermanned. Pay and retirement policies should be brought into better balance, and pay scales should be adjusted to take account of regional differences and skill shortages. All of this is part of a needed plan to work with the bureaucracy --not against it--to bring this country the more efficient federal service that it both wants and needs.