The field of candidates remains unsettled, and the men who would be president are too busy jockeying among themselves to pay attention but, in one quarter at least, serious planning has begun for the post-Reagan presidential transition.

Reasoning that an early start is the best way to avoid confusion later, a group of former government officials based at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government has devised a solution to "the quiet crisis of public service."

Members of Harvard's Public/Private Careers Project said yesterday that Congress should approve higher executive salaries as a lure for government professionals and increase by one-third the $2 million budget alloted for transition activities. Transition teams, they said, should engage in more intensive apolitical recruiting to fill top spots in an incoming administration.

The best way to attract qualified and competent individuals to public service, project chief Carl M. Brauer said, is to employ a favorite private-sector tactic -- head hunting.

"Head hunting has become an accepted practice in the private sector," said Henry H. Fowler, a member of the committee and a former secretary of the Treasury. "I don't see why the federal government should be barred" from using the same methods.

But the most important elements, Brauer is convinced, are timing and money.

"You can't get people appointed ahead of time, but at least you can find out if they're interested," he said.

Of those interested, Brauer noted that in the past only 20 percent of new officials received orientation training. Also, he said, one-third of those selected for the roughly 3,000 positions that the president fills stay on the job only about 18 months.

None of this bodes well for a swift start on an agenda that many new presidents find is often virtually in place well before Inauguration Day.

"On Jan. 20, many of the problems that existed on Jan. 19 are already crying for attention," Brauer said.

Brauer and other members of his group, however, concede that the main elements of their proposal could fall victim to the politics of money and patronage.

The money process begins when Congress allocates $2 million for the president-elect's transition needs.

In 1980, the Reagan team spent $1.7 million of the congressional appropriation and raised at least another $1 million from the private sector. In 1976, Jimmy Carter's transition organization returned $300,000 of the congressional allocation.

In order to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest arising from potential appointees making cash payments to an incoming administration, the Harvard group is suggesting that more money be made available and allocated to the major parties' nominees prior to the election.

In addition, salaries for the new appointees, the committee said, should be fattened -- to $150,000 annually for some jobs that are now paid considerably less -- in order to attract older, more experienced people to government service.

"You do have to look {at public service} as a public duty," Fowler said.

"On the other hand, you have to temper that with realism that people in their late 30s, 40s or even 50s are going to have certain minimum requirements, such as {paying} for children going to college . . . , " he added.

In 1980, the conservative Heritage Foundation gave the incoming Reagan administration a 3,000-page report on the transition that urged Reagan to select the administration's 400 top aides by Jan. 5, well before his swearing-in.

That transition effort, headed by Edwin Meese III, later came under scrutiny when it was disclosed in 1984 that lump-sum payments had been made out of transition funds to several top officials.

Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio) is sponsoring legislation that would also increase the amount of money spent on transition planning, in part so that future presidents would be unlikely to require private money to support a public function.

"Politically it's never an easy sell," said Brauer of proposals to spend more money on planning and staff. "But we've reached the point where even academics are turning down appointments."

Members of the project acknowledged that political realities that give the victor the right to award the spoils of patronage could impede any implementation of their suggestions.

As project member Stanford Ross, a lawyer with Arnold & Porter and former commissioner of the Social Security Administration, put it, "Politics ultimately will work its will."