FEDERAL PERSONNEL policy over the years has been a little like the Ten Commandments -- lots of "Thou shalt not's." The overriding concern has been to insulate the civil service from politics and other forms of favoritism. To a large extent this effort has been successful, which is both the good news and the bad. There are now said to be some 6,000 pages of federal personnel rules; hundreds of occupations have been sorted into the familiar federal pay grids; insofar as humanly possible, you have here the rule, not of men, but of law. One result has been a system remarkably free of scandal. But the price has become a system without much flexibility, and, some would say, a wooden work force. Constance Horner, director of the Office of Personnel Management, says: "I believe the system we've got in place is so retrograde, so out of keeping with the national spirit, so alienating to the national work force that it is my intention to fix it."

In the Carter administration no less than this, there was a felt need to introduce more discretion into federal personnel decisions, to make more of an effort to treat good and bad workers differently instead of so many workers safely the same. Thus the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 created the Senior Executive Service, in which, theoretically, it became easier both to get rid of senior civil servants and reward them, depending on how they measured up. The same act also authorized merit pay experiments. One, at the China Lake Naval Weapons Center in the Mojave Desert and Naval Ocean Systems Center in San Diego, has just had its first full-dress evaluation and been pronounced a success. Essentially, jobs were taken off the old pay grids and put in "bands," within which managers were given the right to give raises or not according to how well employees performed. Recruitment improved, as did both retention of valued employees and morale. On the other hand, costs also went up, about 5 percent more than they would have otherwise.

Now the administration wants to expand the new system into other parts of the government. A bill is being prepared to do so. An agency would apply to OPM to convert to merit pay in certain installations or certain jobs; OPM would approve and oversee for awhile, then release the agency to proceed on its own. But these systems would have to be "cost neutral," meaning that there would have to be as many losers each year as winners. For every employee who got an above-average raise there would have to be one who got below.

China Lake and the San Diego ocean systems center are relatively small and specialized. No one knows whether the methods that seem to have worked there could work as well in other settings and on larger scales. But Mary Rose Oakar, chairman of the House Post Office and Civil Service subcommittee with jurisdiction in the matter, has also introduced a bill to loosen up the system. She would allow experimentation not just with merit pay but also with such things as regional pay scales, to allow for differences in labor markets and living costs; and she would allow experiments in collective bargaining.

Clearly, there are limits beyond which the government cannot go in these directions. It will never be, nor should it, entirely like a private employer. There cannot be a separate pay system for every agency. But the problems right now are mostly at the opposite extreme, and these efforts to overcome them are welcome.