THE ADMINISTRATION has proposed regulations that would tighten the link between civil service pay raises and layoffs and the performance of individual workers. In principle the idea is a good one. But this administration will have to demonstrate a great deal more understanding of the proper way to manage a civil service before there is any chance that the new system would work well in practice.

A better incentive system for federal workers, if properly designed and managed, could be a morale booster. Promoting or retaining people with scant regard to how well they do their jobs is bad both for their organizations and for the morale of those workers who try their best. It's much trickier to run such systems in the public sector, however, siply because civil service was--properly--designed to shield the bureaucracy from political whim. Rewarding performance sounds fine in the abstract, but it's fair to ask how performance will be measured and by whom.

The Office of Personnel Management says it already has an objective performance appraisal system in place. OPM admits that the system hasn't been much of a success thus far--and complaints about both that system and the "merit pay" plan already in place for federal managers have been legion. But OPM is confident that the rating system will work better if it is tied directly to pay.

Teaching the bureaucracy how to manage itself better isn't likely to work, however, unless most civil servants feel that the disruption involved is ultimately in their best interests. Government workers are not likely to take kindly to the loss of more-or-less assured promotions in return for the chance of greater gain unless they are relatively confident that the people in charge are sympathetic to the purposes of their organizations and to their employees' legitimate concerns.

Little about this administration's attitude toward or handling of the federal bureaucracy suggests that the needed confidence will be forthcoming. Some agencies have been stocked up with political appointees whose only claim to their jobs is ideological fervor and a determination to grind their agencies to a screeching halt. Others have been hit by poorly handled layoffs, ill- planned budget cuts, pointless reshufflings of personnel and ultimately--when it turned out that there really was work to be done--frantic rehirings.

Add to all this administration plans for pay and pension freezes--and, most recently, a new order to cut back on workspace in the already grim caverns where most bureaucrats labor--and it's small wonder that the federal work force has greeted the new proposals with less than enthusiasm. Rewarding performance is a nice idea, but good performance needs to start at the top.