ESCALATING HER admirable efforts to embroil fellow mayoral candidates in detailed debates on the Barry record and crucial problems facing the city, Patricia Roberts Harris has unveiled a package on public housing -- titled "One Tenth of a District" -- as a reminder that the city's performance in this area matters to a great many people in a very direct way.

This package is not as compelling as her announcement on economic development and jobs, perhaps because the public housing problem so clearly requires an infusion of hard-to-find cash. Nevertheless, Mrs. Harris has raised serious questions about the Barry administration's management of the resources available: funds on hand that go unspent because renovations and repairs take too long to get under way; poor rent collection practices (is the recession an excuse?); inadequate security; and overall mismanagement. For example, since 1979 the city has modernized only 50 of its 12,000 public housing units, even though many of them are in substandard condition; the Property Management Administration will at long last begin rehabilitation of about 2,000 units sometime this fall.

Beyond this negative indictment, Mrs. Harris offers a positive plan stressing sharply improved management, ranging from a new project-based budgeting system to new personnel practices to performance objectives and appraisals for the property managers on the front line. This is eminently sensible. Experience around the country with public housing demonstrates that the quality of the management is an extraordinarily important factor in making these programs work, often more important than modest changes in funding.

Once again, some will say that Mrs. Harris' proposals evidence a lack of familiarity with how difficult it is to get things done in the District. Quite the contrary. Until her opponents can demonstrate specifically why the management and other reforms she suggests are unworkable or old hat, the more reasonable conclusion is that those who haven't done the job are making lame excuses. Is that unfair, Mr. Mayor?