In proposing new rules for the nation's 1.4 million federal workers that link pay increases and layoffs to job performance, the Reagan administration is seeking to bring practices common to the business community to public service. What is now necessary is a carefully phased-in test project - in which workers, government unions, and the administration all work together to make certain that such a system actually does what it is intended to do, namely, reward competence and thwart mediocrity.
What would be unwise would be to ramrod through a merit program that sows the seed of discord between federal workers and the administration.
The nation's federal workers are people who politically are often maligned for incompetence. But they are the employees of the nation. Through their hands passes much of the day-to-day business of society - from dealing with the mailing of billions of dollars' worth of social security checks to protecting the safety and health of all Americans. Thus, it is absolutely essential that if a new job-performance program based on merit is to be put in place, it must be administered fairly and objectively so as to ensure the well-being of both the federal employees and the nation they serve.
The plan itself is interesting. Instead of receiving virtually automatic 3 percent raises as federal workers move up their various job-steps (as is now common), federal employees would instead have to win a rating of ''fully successful'' to receive such a raise every one to three years.
The proposal, which is itself a compromise following earlier objections from union and congressional leaders, was made under authority of the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978, passed back in the Carter years.
The Office of Personnel Management, which put the new plan together, has said that it would phase in the program over a three-year period. A demonstration project is necessary to prevent the type of horror stories one occasionally hears about government employment - shunting aside whistle-blowers, or even promoting incompetent employees just to get them out of a department. Great care will have to be taken to prevent abuses based on favoritism or mere whimsy in any new program linked to job performance.