The transition from the Carter administration to the Reagan administration in 1981 was "the most psychologically devastating period of my life," William Hedeman, the former director of the EPA's "Superfund," recalled.

The Senior Executive Service had recently been established, making its members feel vulnerable -- they were subject to transfer virtually anywhere after a 120-day get-acquainted period.

"I had done nothing but work for the federal government . . . . We had no nest egg; I had no safe harbor. We had roots here. I didn't want my life screwed around with," he said.

Anne M. Burford was not confirmed as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency for several months as rumors circulated about proposals to dismantle EPA.

Eventually, Hedeman was handed great responsibility by Burford. He administered the Superfund program through seven congressional investigations and emerged as one of the heroes of the EPA scandal probes.

But he spoke movingly yesterday of the need to improve transitions from administration to administration. "Anxiety became almost hysteria," he said.

"Don't overreact," was his advice to bureaucrats fearful of changes before and after President Reagan leaves office.

He offered his advice yesterday as seven former veteran civil servants discussed interregnums at a luncheon sponsored by the Center for Excellence in Government. They decided that the first phase of the transition to a new administration is already under way.

The first phase is marked by by political appointees leaving in droves, some career people jockeying to get top jobs on an acting basis while others worry that by serving in one administration they will be tainted in the next.

In the second phase, after the election, there are "transition teams within transition teams," the former civil servants agreed. Some members of the teams are looking for the good jobs; some are retired bureaucrats looking for consulting contracts; some are people who worked on the campaign, and, they noted, there are usually "a couple, three, people who are pretty damn good."

"There is favoritism as to who is allowed to talk to the transition team and who isn't," said Steven Schatzow, a former EPA official.

In the third phase, after the Inauguration, as long as six to seven months may elapse before some top jobs are filled -- "a really dangerous time for the bureaucracy," the group agreed.

Robert A. Knisely, now a senior associate with SRA Corp., confessed that on occasion, when he was involved in a transition, he hadn't listened closely enough for signals from his new boss about what information his new leader wanted.

"Briefing books are not a good way to transmit information," he said, although in some agencies they are the traditional method of bringing bosses up to speed.

Edward F.R. Hearle, now a senior vice president of Booz- Allen & Hamilton Inc., suggested that a "dos and don'ts" pamphlet might help some senior bureaucrats, many of whom have entered the SES within the last eight years and have never been through a transition.

Among the group's suggestions:Seek to understand the perspective of the incoming appointee, who was named by somebody who just got elected.

Watch the context of the initial briefing to avoid being tagged as a "nerd."

Distinguish facts from opinions -- even if it takes a gimmick like putting them on different colors of paper.

Listen very closely to the new person.

Realize that some situations -- a tiny proportion -- are hopeless.

"Never underestimate the determination of a new senior appointee to put his mark on the organization," said Paul T. O'Day, a former high-level official at the Commerce Department. "If you try to blunt it, you'll be identified as a naysayer. From a career perspective, transitions can be the most useful time to get things done."

Hearle said transitions bring in "some good folks and some bad folks . . . . There is a danger of falling into a supercilious inside-the-Beltway sophistry" that political appointees are the only government officials who fall short.

As Warren W. Glick, a former executive of the Export-Import Bank, put it, "The essence of it {surviving transitions} is that a modest amount can be done by existing civil servants. The incoming administration -- they call the shots."