In an article yesterday on affirmative action, the Post incorrectly identified an organization of personnel specialists. The correct name is the American Society for Personnel Administration.

A certain double-edged approach to fairness in government jobs was spelled out by President Carter late in his administration:

"Get rid of all those who are incompetent, except women and minorities," he instructed top officials during a major shakeup, as then-Health, Education and Welfare Secretary Joseph A. Califano Jr. recalls it.

While the federal government has played the role of the tough cop to private sector managers, its own example as an equal opportunity employer has often failed to shine. After more than a decade of special programs, for instance, the 7,000 senior career executives who ran the government as of last year, even after Carter's order, included 464 women (6.6 percent) and 359 blacks (5.1 percent).

Now, even the modest progress of recent years may be reversed under President Reagan's rather more traditional approach to dismissals.

Whether in the best of times, with a sympathetic president, or under an administration such as Reagan's in which the rhetoric is openly hostile to quotas and government coercion, it seems, change occurs at a glacial pace.

Affirmative action essentially pits one set of government policies against another.

For instance, women and blacks supposedly are "protected" against discrimination. But a woman job applicant who makes 95 on her federal job test can't get past the veteran who scores 90 because he gets an automatic extra 5 points (10 if he's disabled) added to his score. In layoffs, veterans must by law be the last to go.

Veterans--98 percent male and 92 percent white--hold half the jobs in the federal government, even though they make up only about one-fourth of the nation's workforce.

For minorities, the more severe block to public jobs, according to Alan K. Campbell, Carter's personnel chief, is their consistently poor scoring compared with mainstream white men and women on the entry-level tests used in much federal hiring.

Such tests are the subject of a continuing controversy about whether they really are good predictors of performance and whether they are culturally biased "built-in head winds." They exist in the private sector, too, but employers there have more flexibility in their use.

Significantly, the federal government has never offered its services as an adviser to the private sector on "how to do" affirmative action right. Federal managers haven't discovered the magic formula either, and many of their problems are similar to those of the private sector workers.

Because of government's built-in rigidities and especially Carter's pressure to crack them, various resentments over this tricky policy may have simmered hotter in the beehives of the federal workforce than in the private workplace.

"Inept design and execution of affirmative action plans, of course, can 'stigmatize' minorities and women," the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights wrote in a recent attempt to deal with public misunderstandings.

"Affirmative action plans can feed perceptions of minority and female inferiority, for example, when they select unqualified or token minorities who are destined to fail, when they simply are statistical schemes for keeping litigators out of corporate treasuries and when they do not restrain supervisors from acting on racist or sexist stereotypes."

Not that many aren't willing to pay this price for economic progress. As some civil rights advocates observe, white men managed to overcome the "stigma" of the fact that their success was owed to their sex and their skin color back when they excluded everybody else from competition.

"Irishmen in Chicago under Mayor Daley didn't feel stigmatized by their patronage jobs," observed a white male personnel specialist.

The Reagan administration is reviewing some of the government's array of special testing, training, "upward mobility" and contract set-aside programs aimed at women and minorities and, according to Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.), has cut funds for virtually all of them.

Some continue. A program called "Up With English," for instance, is available at some agencies to teach proper white-collar office grammar. Although open to anyone, it is a special draw among blacks brought up on street slang who see white English as a second language necessary for advancement.

As in the private sector, the results of various efforts vary wildly with the circumstances.

One of the most controversial government initiatives, at the State Department under Carter, aimed to raise the number of blacks and other minorities accepted as Foreign Service junior officers by lowering the passing grade from 75 to 70 for minorities only. When that plan provoked stormy resistance, officials lowered the standard to 70 for all applicants.

Yet, they have still been able to meet or exceed their goals for minority hiring, especially since Reagan officials have reduced those goals.

"The Foreign Service is so selective anyway, the people are all terribly well-qualified . . . . We are about the only game in town, so we get the cream," said Foreign Service orientation director Jim Morton.

Larry Palmer, 32, one of a newly inducted class of junior officers, a black man who formerly headed a minorities program at Wake Forest University, bristled at the mention of preferential treatment.

"We took the test and passed a rigorous oral assessment exam, and so on. We did not come in through the back door," he said. Palmer, who is preparing for an assignment in Santo Domingo, added, "If that was the case, nobody told me."

In another program, to increase the number of Hispanic employes and also fill an alleged shortage of qualified clerical workers here, the government recruited nationwide among migrant workers and others who could type at a certain rate (including some trained under Comprehensive Employment and Training Act programs), but "who normally wouldn't have such an opportunity," explained Juan Ramirez, an equal employment opportunity official with the federal Office of Personnel Management.

The pass rate was poor the first time around, but this was attributed in part to people being unaccustomed to taking written tests, he said. "We followed up and reexamined some of them, and they did better," he added.

The program brought 273 new employes into federal clerical jobs, including even some with college or advanced degrees who had been unable to find work in their own communities, he said.

In their new offices, some went through a difficult period of being treated as "EEO babies," Ramirez said. "They tended to speak Spanish, and some managers forced them to speak only English. Their coworkers tended to ignore them, treated them like outcasts."

But OPM assigned them "padrinos" and "madrinas" to counsel them on such things as snow days and sick leave and to listen to their complaints. "After six months, we have almost 85 percent" still in their jobs, Ramirez said.

Some women and minority workers say affirmative action programs too often do things backward, in haste to do good or for more cynical reasons, leaving vital groundwork unlaid.

New Foreign Service junior officer Palmer cited the example of some blacks he knew who went to Ivy League universities a few years ago. "They went trooping in, ill-prepared, lost interest, dropped out, got frustrated, and here they are, some of them $10,000 in debt, black and can't get a job."

Of his own new employer, he added, "They're doing a pretty good job of getting people in. But my personal bias is, will these people be around five to 10 years from now?"