ONE OF THE first things to fall by the wayside along with the first significant snow the other day was a cherished if notorious tradition of government service: gone from the morning list of unhappenings and non-workings was the usually automatic federal-employee option to stay home. Perhaps the Reagan administration could not continue something referred to as a "liberal" leave policy, but anyway, the word went out to show up--which is precisely what great numbers of civil servants managed to do.

There are bound to be some hardships when the snow flies, and certainly there will be times when no good purpose is served in tying up treacherous streets or endangering lives in the name of the work ethic. But too often in the past, even the thought of a flurry would reduce the government's first-flake capability to near-zero in most agencies. Yet in the private sector, where the snows tend to fall with equal intensity, people whose paychecks depended on their personal appearances seemed to get to their jobs somehow.

There were remarkably few serious traffic problems earlier this week, though one on-the-scene television reporter did offer an observation that traffic gets messed up because "Washingtonians are so inexperienced when it comes to driving in the snow." In truth, many of these alleged Washing- tonians hail from elsewhere, including heavy-winter states; and they are the ones who are surpised to learn that this city has any natives at all. Besides, as it happened, the traffic slowdown the reporter referred to was in the neighborhood of all four major TV stations--and it was their circle of parked remote-broadcast-vans that motorists were driving around.

But elsewhere, the local government workers behind the plows, shovels and police badges around town did a swift and effective job of keeping the main streets clear and traffic moving--and their dedication to all-weather duty should not go uncredited.