The federal civil service system marks its centennial today unhappy, unhealthy, under siege.

The assault comes from all quarters. Conservatives find the federal bureaucracy untamed and unaccountable. The living, breathing symbol of activist government gone amok. A national nag.

Liberals find it an overzealous guardian of the status quo, a hidebound behemoth forever digging its heels into the path of progress.

And all Americans, regardless of ideology, have been spoon-fed the idea that there is something about public bureaucracies that turns the people who work for them into rule-bound, turf-conscious, empire-building bunglers or, alternatively, lazies and louts who get too handsome a FEDERAL WORKERS UNLOVED AND UNDER SIEGE wage, too cushy an annuity and too secure a job guarantee for too little work. What is it, after all, that those folks do?

Some of these stereotypes are at odds with others, but in popular mythology, all manage to thrive simultaneously.

They are as old as the nation, tapping a deep cultural animus towards government and bigness, but only recently have they been given full-fledged presidential notice. President Reagan has branded the bureaucracy a swamp, President Carter an island. And both found it a splendid political whipping boy in an anti-government age. It does not whip back.

Even Madison Avenue has gotten into the act with advertisements for Federal Express that portray the employes of its competitor, the U.S. Postal Service, as surly, lazy, unresponsive. "The worst part of it was they were funny," said George Gould, legislative director of the National Association of Letter Carriers, whose protests helped push the hardest-hitting ads off the air.

Images have consequences. Since 1977, the lot of the federal worker has declined on a number of fronts.

Government salaries, which by law are supposed to be kept at par with comparable private sector wages, are lagging a record 13.9 percent, according to the President's Advisory Committee on Federal Pay. Just six years ago, when Jimmy Carter was inaugurated, there was no gap. This year, with proposals afoot to freeze government salaries, it is likely to widen.

The cost of government employe health premiums has gone up an average of 55 percent in the past two years while the benefits have been reduced an average of 12 to 16 percent.

The jewel of the federal employes' compensation package, the retirement system, has been whittled back four of the past five years and now faces the most sweeping attack in its 62-year history. The Reagan administration is expected to try to scale back the early retirement benefits, increase employe contributions and force new and perhaps some short-term federal employes into the Social Security system.

Since passage of the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978, designed to make the bureaucracy more responsive to political leadership, top-level careerists have enjoyed far less job security against policy or political purges.

Before the act, the history of the past century, beginning with President Chester A. Arthur signing the Civil Service Act on Jan. 16, 1883, to cap a 30-year reform movement, had been overwhelmingly the other way: job protections expanded, the reach of political appointees curtailed.

There is lively debate whether the beginnings of a reversal of that trend have turned out well from the policy and personnel management point of view. Those issues will be examined later in this series.

But from the viewpoint of some careerists, the loss of job protections, combined with arrival of a batch of ideologically zealous political appointees who consider the government the enemy, has been a disaster. "It has gotten to the point where many of the nation's most capable public administrators are forced into being yes-men," said Bernard Rosen, a former executive director of the U.S. Civil Service Commission. "I've never seen it so bad."

On top of this, some lesser indignities. The past two years have brought a brinksmanship confrontation between Congress and the White House over budget appropriations in which federal workers find themselves pawns, periodically unsure whether to report to work.

And the Reagan budget cuts have brought reductions in force (RIFs) which, though small (just one-half of 1 percent of the federal workforce has been directly affected, with three times that number touched by the various "bumping" provisions), has nonetheless pricked the comfortable cocoon of federal job security. Critics say the RIF procedures have been at best blunt, at worst politicized.

All of this has taken a predictable toll on morale.

"We are the new underclasss of society," said G. Jerry Shaw, president of the Senior Executives Association which represents high-ranking career bureaucrats. "People make jokes about us that they've stopped making about ethnic groups and minorities."

James Beggs, director of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, said, "Anytime you are constantly told that you are a bunch of leeches on society, morale is bound to suffer." He worries, as do most top federal executives, that the image, pay and morale problems are leading to a "brain drain" from government.

Despite the agency's gee-whiz glamor, NASA has been losing some of its most promising mid-career engineers, scientists and managers in recent years, and Beggs says he cannot compete with private sector wages for replacements. He worries, too, that the sharpest of the "fresh-outs" from engineering school are going to the private high-tech companies, where starting salaries are at least a third higher.

Government-wide, the brain drain recently reached epidemic proportions in the 55-59 age group of senior executives. Their salaries had been capped during three years of double-digit inflation and their incentives to leave were fueled by the generous early retirement benefits that government workers enjoy.

In 1981, 78 percent of all senior executives in that age group eligible to take early retirement did so. Three years earlier, the retirement figure in that same age group had been just 19 percent. This left the government with a less seasoned managerial corps. According to one 1981 Office of Personnel and Management (OPM) report, the average length of executive experience in the government's senior management corps had dropped nearly 50 percent since 1977.

What troubles bureaucracy's advocates is that as the brain drain takes its inevitable toll, the bureaucracy will become as bumbling as the public thinks it is. "We are in the process of destroying one of the finest governmental institutions ever created by man," Shaw said.

"It is foolishness for a society to destroy its own government," said A. Lee Fritschler, president of the American Society of Public Administrators. "It always has been. Now, when we find ourselves in a resource-scarce, highly competitive international economic system, it is doubly foolish and doubly dangerous."

All well and good, but if these myths are so wrongheaded, why do they persist? We are not, after all, a nation of rubes. Are we just possibly onto something?

Of course we are, said Donald J. Devine, an outspoken, libertarian-leaning conservative who in two years as the bureaucracy's chief steward has shown a special knack for infuriating its defenders.

"The people's perceptions are to a great extent true," said Devine, OPM director. "They think the benefits are higher for government workers, and they are. They think the government workers are inefficient, and they are. But they think it's because they're lazy, and that's not right.

"They're not lazy. They just have a lousy system to work in."

Bureaucracies are no strangers to warts. The standard politicians' and journalists' exposition of these warts has been anecdotal--the familiar tale of Dear Aunt Tillie, dead since 1978, whose Social Security check arrives faithfully each month--but the horror stories have flourished in the popular culture because they speak to some built-in bureaucratic dysfunctions that the public perceives.

Political scholars and management specialists have been dissecting these warts for decades. A sampling:

The incentive system for bureaucrats is perverse. They are rewarded with power and prestige for expanding budgets and staff without regard to cost or social good. Given the pressures of the annual budget cycle, the ethic becomes spend it or lose it.

All attempts to control bureaucracies create more bureaucracies. As Americans we intuitively mistrust our government, so we believe fervently in oversight. But as we add more inspectors general, more General Accounting Office accountants, more congressional subcommittee staff members, more internal control mechanisms, we create the need for more bureaucrats to keep the monitors happy.

The corollary is that efforts to keep the bureaucracy honest keep the bureaucracy slow. This is not a new problem. In 1836, the House Ways and Means Committee investigated the Treasury Department's excruciating slowness in releasing public funds. It found that, to guard against embezzlement, five internal clearances were needed before any transaction could be made. More recently, when Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) asked the Pentagon to outline the procedures it follows before approving a contract, the outline required a sheet of paper 33 feet long. There is a plus side to this. Even with its periodic scandals, and the others that surely go undiscovered, the bureaucracy, by worldwide standards, is considered a center of integrity.

Efforts to keep the bureaucracy apolitical keep it inefficient. In response to the abuses of a personnel system based on spoils, the nation has opted for a federal personnel management system that stresses uniformity, rigid rules and strong employe protections. In such a managerial culture, it is cumbersome to reward or punish on the basis of performance. So the mediocre tend to survive and the gifted to depart.

In complex, advanced societies, bureaucratic agencies become advocates for the client groups they were created to serve. "Iron triangles" develop among these advocacy groups, sympathetic congressional committees and bureaucrats, and they protect narrow interests at the expense of broader ones.

The federal bureaucracy is afflicted to some degree by all of these tendencies, but so is most every bureaucracy ever made. However, in the face of these pressures to get bigger, slower and more ossified, there is a credible body of evidence to suggest that this bureaucracy, anyway, is at least holding its own.

Some anti-horror stories:

In the past 30 years, when the size of the federal budget grew 800 percent, the scope of its programs grew exponentially, and the notion of government interventionism took root, the size of the federal civilian workforce went up by eightfold? fivefold? twofold?

No, in the past 30 years, the growth of the federal workforce has been 9.7 percent. Not 9.7 percent a year, 9.7 percent total. In 1952, there were 2.57 million civilian employes. As of the end of last year, it was 2.82 million. The Reagan administration has marginally trimmed a workforce whose size has been basically stable for a decade. It has reduced federal government employment by roughly 50,000 since it came to power.

Look at it another way. Since 1952, the number of federal employes per capita in the nation has declined by 24 percent.

How has this happened? One of the secrets has been that the government contracts out more and more of its work. The cost of its contract payroll exceeds its own payroll by some $20 billion a year, according to one congressional estimate. And the other is that it has shifted workload, if not commensurate policy control, to state and local government. That is where the bureaucratic growth has occurred in the past three decades, from four million in 1952 to nearly 14 million now.

The point here is not whether these decisions to delegate workload make wise public policy. That is a different issue. The point is that the federal government workforce, viewed purely as a voracious bureaucratic beast, has been on a diet.

Nor is that workforce made up exclusively of anonymous clerks and systems analysts, though doubtless it is made up of too many of them. There are more than 2,000 job classifications in the government, covering everything from janitor, construction worker and policeman to park ranger, doctor, physicist and astronaut.

Since Federal Express has raised the question of postal efficiency, let us ponder it. It makes an especially good topic. Productivity measures are a lot cleaner at the Postal Service than they are at, say, the State Department.

The fact is the United States Postal Service delivers more mail, more efficiently, for less money than in any other nation on earth, and it is getting better.

It moves 110 billion pieces of mail per year, or some 161,879 pieces per employe, a productivity-per-worker rate that is 44 percent above that of the closest competitor, Japan.

The cost of mailing a first class letter in the United States is 12th lowest of 14 industrialized nations surveyed last summer, with only Belgium, at an equivalent of 19.9 cents per letter, and Switzerland, at 19.2 cents, below the Postal Service's 20 cents. Germany charges the equivalent of 33 cents.

Rates here have been rising at a slower pace than inflation since 1974 and, in 1979 for the first time in four decades, the Postal Service operated in the black. It did it again last year, and it is now operating on a fee basis. There are no subsidies anymore from Uncle Sam.

Speed-of-delivery is on the rise, too. In 1982, the Postal Service met its next-day-delivery standard for first class mail traveling within a metropolitan area 95.5 percent of the time. In the two-day category, performance was 88 percent and in three-day delivery, 90 percent.

Are its window clerks surly? The postal system monitors transactions at postal windows with inspectors asking out-of-the-ordinary questions. How must a parcel be wrapped to qualify for a special rate? That sort of thing. The accuracy rate was 75 percent in one 1980 study, but the pattern of mistakes and inaccurate charges was interesting. It tended to be the clerk giving the customer the benefit of the doubt.

Do postal customers return the favor? Well, they've been checking up on us, on our little fibs and intrigues.

In a 1982 Roper poll commissioned by the Postal Service, 2,000 people were asked how often they had given as an excuse for a tardy letter or payment in the past year that it was "held up in the mail." Nine percent said they had. But, when asked if they had been given the "held-up-in-the-mail" excuse, 23 percent said they had. Somebody, somewhere is trimming the truth, and the suspects are not in the post office.

Productivity measurements are difficult to apply to most of the federal government which produces policy, information and services, not widgets. But coarse standards have been devised for roughly two-thirds of the federal workforce. And they show that since 1967, the average annual increase in productivity has been 1.4 percent among federal workers. This is a growth percentage that would make most sectors of the private economy envious, though comparisons are difficult because the standards of measurement vary.

It is also difficult to make comparisons between this bureaucracy and those of other industrialized nations, but some generalizations are fair. In western Europe, where the anti-government ethic is not as strong and where the value of institutional memory is more accepted, bureaucrats enjoy greater social standing and better pay relative to their private sectors than here.

But it does not automatically follow that the public's expectations of its bureaucracies in Europe are higher than they are here.

In a 1960 research survey by social scientists Gabriel Almond and Sidney Verba, 1,000 people in each of five different countries were asked if they expected "to be treated as well as anyone else" when they went to a government office with a problem or question. In the United States, 83 percent said they expected equal treatment, in Great Britain 83 percent, in West Germany 65 percent, in Italy 53 percent and in Mexico 42 percent.

This may be as much a measure of the level of cynicism in various nations as it is of the efficacy of the different bureaucracies. But it leads to another point.

The public perception of the bureaucracy here is better than the public perceives. The basis for this seemingly contradictory argument is laid out in "The Case for the Bureaucracy," a book just published by Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University Professor Charles T. Goodsell.

Goodsell reviews dozens of independent surveys taken over the years of people who had experiences with public bureaucrats at all levels of government, in welfare offices, tax departments, unemployment offices, etc. The pattern is consistent. Two-thirds to three-quarters of the respondents perceive their experiences with the bureaucracy in a generally favorable light. But ask people in the abstract if they think bureaucrats do not work hard, waste the taxpayers' money and are overpaid, and two-thirds of virtually every public opinion sample will give responses antagonistic to the bureaucrats.

Goodsell argues that one reason the stereotypes persist is that "a fundamental feature of the bureaucracy is that it continually performs millions of tiny acts of individual service. Because this ongoing mass of routine achievement is not in itself newsworthy or even capable of intellectual grasp, it operates silently, almost out of sight. The occasional breakdowns, the unusual scandals, the individual instances where an injustice is done, are what come to our attention and color our overall judgment."

Public bureaucracies also must face up to this at the heart of their image problem. In an individualist, freedom-loving culture such as this, the freedoms bureaucracies restrict inevitably loom larger in the mind's eye than the freedoms they preserve.

People do not get down on their knees each time they swallow a pill and thank a bureaucrat for making sure it was not full of carcinogens. But when they read that a drug company must file 120,000 pages of reports to the Food and Drug Administration to bring a new drug onto the market, they think, Red Tape.

Devine believes it is not productive for government workers to feel under siege. "You just can't go around believing every administration is out to get you," he said, but added, "Unless they government workers change the way they think about work, the civil service as an institution is going to wither and die. That's what happens to institutions that cannot adjust. You could have the country going part way back to a patronage system, or going more and more to privatization."

The threats to civil service do not seem to be that severe, but federal workers clearly are under attack, the scapegoats of an anti-government age.

What rankles them most about their status is expressed in a line from historian Thomas Carlyle: "In the long run, every government is the exact symbol of its people, with their wisdom and their unwisdom."

In other words, what makes bureaucracies bureaucratic is not them, but us.

"The civil service is not some foreign power," Don Goldman, a careerist at Interior, wrote in this newspaper some years ago. "Nor is it an invading army. It is doing, in the best way it can, the jobs assigned to it. We make mistakes, like most people, and we have louts and lazies among us. But we think it's nonsense for those who are giving the orders--the voters, Congress, the president--to ridicule us for following them." NEXT: Pay and Pensions