Forgive the nation's civil servants for not rejoicing. The 4 percent pay raise scheduled to take effect today will barely be noticed in their biweekly paychecks. And even those who consider a small pay increase better than none will be hard-pressed to ignore the newly imposed Medicare payroll deduction and the longstanding pattern of neglect which they represent.

It would be different if the fiscal 1983 cost-of-living adjustment, roughly half the average wage increase won by private sector or state and local employees in the first half of 1982, were a temporary response to the federal budget crisis. After all, working for government in an era of fiscal austerity might be expected to entail some sacrifice. What irks federal workers is that this year's shabby pay treatment is anything but new -- federal pay repeatedly has fallen short of both what the government has pledged and what fairness demands.

Since 1970, when Congress endorsed private-sector wages and salaries as the appropriate guide for federal pay, the promise of comparability has been fulfilled only twice. The refusal of successive administrations, both Republican and Democratic, to follow statutory guidelines for comparable pay has placed the nation's employees further and further behind their private-sector counterparts. This year, civil servants would have needed an 18.47 percent pay increase to reach the wage levels of similar workers in business and industry, a far cry from what the president and Congress decided they should receive.

One can only wonder what price the nation will pay, in terms of the efficiency of government and the quality of its services, if the incentives are inadequate to attract the best and the brightest? With the compensation of a secure job destroyed by recent reductions in force (RIFs), who but the most dedicated would be satisfied with this steady erosion of pay?

The Reagan administration, rather than moving to strengthen the civil service, seems intent on making federal employment even less attractive. Its anti-government rhetoric is replete with ridicule for the nation's employees. They are portrayed as self- serving bureaucrats instead of as public servants who plan the national defense, minister to disabled veterans, process Social Security pay and administer farm aid programs.

The president's recent veto of the supplemental appropriations bill also took its toll on federal workers. The ensuing funding crisis, precipitated by the administration more as a political posture than as a substantive dispute, left civil servants wondering if they would be allowed to go to work each morning and worrying how their rent would be paid if furloughs struck. The nation's employees deserve better.

Recent developments in federal employee relations are particularly disturbing because they reverse a pattern of slow but steady progress in the recognition of worker rights in the federal establishment. From 1962, when President Kennedy issued an executive order giving formal recognition to federal unions, through the adoption of the Civil Service Reform Act in 1978, the nation moved gradually toward a limited form of collective bargaining for federal workers patterned after models of industrial relations widely accepted in the private sector. These mechanisms for handling employee concerns and grievances, albeit narrow in scope, have given civil servants a greater sense of dignity on the job and brought an important element of impartiality to labor-management relations in the federal government.

President Reagan's budget and personnel policies now threaten to emasculate this fledgling collective bargaining system. Deep cuts in the operating budgets of independent agencies --such as the Federal Labor Relations Authority and the Merit Systems Protection Board -- that serve as arbiters in labor-management disputes will soon prevent federal employees from securing a prompt hearing of their grievances. Statutory rights designed to protect employee rights, will not be enforced and will become meaningless.

For the civil servant seeking compensation and collective bargaining rights similar to those in the private sector, there are few options. Barred by statute from negotiating wages and benefits, federal workers cannot take their dissatisfaction with federal pay to the negotiating table. And given the inclinaton of both politicians and voters to use civil servants as scapegoats for the nation's problems, their appeals remain muted and are likely to fall upon deaf ears.

What choice remains for the federal employee? The Congress could extend meaningful collective bargaining rights to federal employees, providing them with a more significant voice in the determination of their pay and working conditions. It could halt the disintegration of the neutral labor relations agencies that are essential to the fair consideration of worker grievances. It could muster the political courage to confront the nation's problems without doing so at the civil servant's expense.

If we are serious about restoring confidence in government, we must begin by filling its ranks with competent and experienced workers. At minimum, we must offer federal employees the wages and the dignity they could find in the private sector. Our ability to launch effective public remedies to the nation's ills hangs in the balance.