Since taking office in March, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev has had sharp words for the Soviet Union's vast and powerful government ministries, now prime scapegoats for the failings of the Soviet economic system.

Laying out his economic program in a series of unusually frank speeches, Gorbachev has singled out the ministries for sins ranging from excessive meddling and "departmentalism," or turf protection, to blocking technological innovations and, in one case, to "disrupting the operating rhythm of our national economy."

The attack on the ministries, amplified by articles in the press, is part of Gorbachev's drive to shake up the economy and free industrial managers from the tentacles of an intrusive bureacracy centered in 64 Moscow-based ministries and 15 state committees.

At the same time, Gorbachev has also argued for simpler and, in some ways, tighter controls by state planning agencies -- not only to fulfill annual and five-year plans, but to encourage new technology, conserve energy and resources and foster new attitudes toward work.

The paradox has again put the ministries in the middle. On the one hand, they have been told to loosen controls and give vent to initiatives from below. On the other hand, as the attack shows, they are being held -- if anything -- more responsible for what happens at lower levels.

"These guys are getting contradictory signals: relinquish power and still be held accountable. What are they supposed to do?" asked one western specialist.

The answer, some specialists say, could provide a clue to the progress of Gorbachev's reforms. If he can bend the ministries to his will, then he will have succeeded where the reforms of the 1960s failed, according to one Soviet economic observer.

Then, he recalled, the ministries and other bureaucracies turned the reforms into an administrative campaign and watched as the concept of local responsibility disappeared in a blizzard of new directives.

This time, he noted, Gorbachev is trying to prepare the groundwork, trying to keep ahead of the expected backlash and pursue a firm and steady course. The critical moment will come next February with the adoption of a new five-year plan, when the economic experiments of the past 18 months are expected to be made national.

In identifying the ministries as pockets of resistance, Gorbachev has the backing of Tamara Zaslavskaya, an academician at the Novosibirsk Institute of Economics whose frank report on the Soviet economy two years ago made headlines in the western press.

Zaslavskaya, a pioneer in "economic sociology," has appeared in the Soviet press lately with the argument that the ministries -- the middle echelon in the Soviet management system -- are the most bloated and the most conservative of Soviet interest groups.

"Negative trends, including regionalism, departmentalism, bureaucratism and conservatism, are in evidence," she wrote in a recent issue of the economic journal Eko. She identified these trends as "the ugly manifestations of the self-interest of some management groups."

Change, she wrote, will come about, despite the ministries, from the other two management echelons -- above, from the state planning agencies, and below, from local enterprises.

So far, Gorbachev has only hinted at structural changes in the ministerial system -- a possible merger of some of the 13 ministries associated with the agro-industrial complex, an elimination of one tier of ministerial bureaucracy and possibly drawing in other groups with greater interindustrial responsibilities.

In a centrally planned system where all power flows from the top, the reins are very short. Vested interests are defined very narrowly and hence are well entrenched. Besides the Machine-Building Ministry, for example, there are ministries of General Machine Building, Livestock and Fodder Machine Building, Chemical and Oil Machine Building, Heavy and Transport Machine Building and Electrotechnical Machine Building -- each with its own power base and constituency.

Gorbachev's first moves, giving the most visible and immediate evidence of change, have come in personnel. While arguably symbolic, they have the effect of sending a message down through the ranks of the bureaucracy.

In a speech in June, Gorbachev accused four ministers of squandering state resources, of wasting imported equipment and of general mismanagement. One of the four has since lost his job.

The technique of naming ministers and holding their failings up to public view is not new with Gorbachev. The Communist Party leadership at other times has shifted blame on the government apparatus for problems in the system.

Toward the end of his long reign, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev did the same -- in one case, naming a minister who appeared again on Gorbachev's list in June.

The difference was that when Brezhnev scorned the performance of Ivan Kazanets, minister of ferrous metallurgy, in November 1979, Kazanets remained on the job. A month after Gorbachev chastized Kazanets, the 67-year-old minister was out of the post he had held since 1965.

"The difference is that when Gorbachev criticizes ministers by name, he is saying, 'We don't want these kind of people around anymore,' " said one western diplomat.

So far, nine ministers have been removed from their posts since Gorbachev took office. More than a dozen have had to leave since January, when many observers think the new leader started to put his stamp on the government. The shift reflects the generational shift at the top. The average year of birth of those ministers who have left their posts since March was 1914: the average birth year of their replacements is 1928.

At the same time, skeptics note that the progress is not that swift. Not all chastized ministers have been removed, and, as their age indicates, most of those replaced were already well past retirement age. So far, there have been no structural changes in the vast government apparatus.

Some western observers say they sense a new hesitancy creeping into some of Gorbachev's original promises -- in particular, on the range and depth of experiments expected in the 1986-90 five-year plan. They note that some restrictions on local initiative have been repealed only to make room for others. For instance, local enterprises can keep more of their profits longer, but they have been given more instructions on what to do with them.

"It seems as though the ministries are fighting back, but quietly," speculated one western economist.