Five months after Constance Horner took over as director of the Office of Personnel Management, she discovered that the government was conducting an exotic management training course in Denver for top civil servants.

She learned the details of the course on stress management by reading The Wall Street Journal, which reported that bureaucrats were being subjected to tapes of mountain streams containing subliminal messages such as "I am calm" and "Mommy and I are one." The idea of the messages was to promote a sense of well-being and tranquility by invoking the primal relationship between mother and child, according to a former OPM official.

Horner canceled the course, but the episode served to reinforce her firm views that management training in the federal government needs improvement.

Today she is going through a process not unlike that under way in executive suites across America -- looking at the $66.8 million OPM is spending to improve the performance of senior civil servants and wondering whether it should get more for its money.

As American business has come under increasing competitive pressures, "more and more of the smarter companies are questioning whether they are getting their money's worth from their increasing expenditures for training and development," said Jude Rich, president of Sibson & Co., management consultants in Princeton, N.J. "After a few years, training programs develop a life of their own. A company can be spending a lot of money on training without improving performance."

The government, too, is trying to squeeze more performance from fewer people. Although the government's middle-management ranks have not been shrunk with the savagery seen in some private industries, the pressure to do more with less provides ample incentive for educating the government's senior bureaucrats.

The U.S. government spends $633 million a year training its work force, with courses from "Practice Problems in Governmental Accounting" to "Management Development Seminars." Although OPM directly controls only $66.8 million of the total, it can be an important pacesetter because it educates the bosses. OPM oversees the Federal Executive Institute, which aims its programs at members of the Senior Executive Service, the bureaucratic elite.

The quality of federal training "varies," said James E. Colvard, deputy director of OPM. "Some is very good, some very poor. In many respects, under the circumstances, it's quite good."

The government pays, on average, $140 a day for its speakers, Colvard said, in a field where private firms often pay $500.

But "first-rate" training, like so much else in education, is difficult to describe and harder to ensure.

Good training, according to Rich, should change behavior, a process that is neither easy nor always pleasant. Most federal workers sent to government training courses report that they enjoyed them and found them useful.

Rich finds that response a "bad sign." Training should be grueling and difficult because most people don't immediately take to changing their behavior, he said.

Horner recently named a new director of the Federal Executive Institute, and is focusing her attention on the curriculum of three seminar centers where managers who have not yet made it into the SES participate in two-week sessions.

"Every once in a while an executive has to act on strong instinct," Horner said. "You can study up the ying-yang. I want to act to improve what strikes me as an inadequate situation.

"We don't want to waste the federal employe's time with irrelevant, poor-quality training," Horner said. "One thing that would facilitate this process would be having available a centrally located, accessible training facility that befits the seriousness of what we're trying to do."

The government's three executive seminar centers are on the grounds of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, N.Y., in Oak Ridge, Tenn., and in Denver, heart of the congressional district of Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.), chairwoman of the House civil service subcommittee.

Horner is seeking a site within 35 to 150 miles of Washington, where she "can keep an eye on it."

Schroeder scents possible political motivation concerning the Denver facility, and has persuaded the House to block Horner's efforts.

But the fight between two prominent women in American politics -- Schroeder, who is considering joining the Democratic contest for the presidency, and Horner, the No. 2 ranking woman in the Reagan administration -- is only the latest standoff in the long-running dispute over federal management training.

Schroeder said that since the Denver center has always been the federal executives' favorite of the three OPM seminar centers, the reason to close it "beats me. Maybe I'm not Connie Horner's favorite person."

Horner said that attacking Schroeder politically by closing a facility in her district is "quite beneath my interest."

Colvard said Horner "directed me that this was an area that needed a lot of work. I've worked it straight down the middle. There has been no effort to 'get Schroeder.' I've kept her informed all the way along the line."

Horner, a former teacher, started her government career at the volunteer agency, ACTION, six years ago. She was advised there not to bother taking OPM's management training because "the quality was too low," she recalled.

Training policy within the federal government varies from agency to agency, with one department providing extensive high-quality in-house training and another sending scattered employes on rare occasions to programs ranging from OPM's centers to Harvard University.

Unlike in the military, where about 20 percent of an officer's career may be spent in formal training necessary to advance to the next step on the promotional ladder, the average federal civilian worker spends less than 5 percent of his or her time in training, according to Colvard, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on the subject in the Navy Material Command.

Much civilian training is catch-as-catch-can -- a process of self-selection under which highly motivated workers sign up for training courses and are selected to go and others -- who perhaps need training more -- don't.

The government has few required courses for advancing into any job -- although introductory management courses are encouraged for all new managers. Some of the best new managers never receive formal training in management -- although their educational background may have been in a technical speciality -- because they "cannot be spared."

Other agencies use training as a reward, a kind of paid vacation for favorites.

The government has developed a Management Excellence Inventory to allow employes and their supervisors to identify weak areas or gaps in experience or education that could be filled with courses.

In recent years, the seminar centers have tried to make their programs more relevant to the goals of the administration. The Denver center offers a course on deregulation, an important Reagan initiative, and conservative brewer Joseph Coors has lectured there, Schroeder said.

Still, the government is virtually never cited today as the educational leader it has been in the past -- inaugurating concepts and techniques that are picked up by industry.

OPM's management development seminar for experienced managers is described in its course catalogue as offering "briefings, films, readings, symposia and advanced practice learning experiences -- including case analysis and discussion." Topics include "understanding and working effectively within the several environments of the federal system; implementing administration management improvement initiatives, and understanding individual and group behavior in work situations."

"The federal government used to be leaders in training," said Bill Wiggenhorn, vice president for training and education at Motorola Corp. "My impression is that over the last two administrations it has fallen behind, still offering the training of the late '60s. There are exceptions, of course."

At Motorola, "We have moved away from attempting to teach motivation, or performance appraisals or communications skills," Wiggenhorn said.

"Many people are critical of that type of training. The problems today are so immense that just dealing with current issues {in case studies drawn from real Motorola situations} teaches all these things," he said.

Jim Noel, program manager of executive education for General Electric, said GE frequently uses what is called, for lack of a better term, "action learning."

Corporate executives spend about two weeks studying one of GE's businesses with a current corporate problem or question. The result of the team's research is presented to the head of the business and his immediate superior.

"We have been able to do it without too much defensiveness," Noel said. "People see it as an opportunity for bright, capable people within the company to offer suggestions, rather than hiring an outside consultant . . . . Sometimes the advice is taken, sometimes not.

"We do some lectures," Noel said, "but we try to minimize them -- really, it is not the most effective way to teach a group of experienced people."

"I have visited the General Electric educational center and the IBM training center and when you walk in the door you know you are in for a powerful and sophisticated educational experience," Horner said. "When you walk into one of our training centers there is no sense of high seriousness. We owe it to federal executives by the nature of the facility to show them that we take their continuing education seriously."