GETTING a bureacracy to respond is itself enough of a labor for government leaders, when the tension in the cracked whip usually goes lax before the report is heard. It is even more of a challenge when ideological rivalries and political appointments divide the ranks and when an administration's new course has not been definitively laid out.
So George Shultz's efforts to get his State Department staffed and ready for Mr. Reagan's second term should be given explicit encouragement, despite protests of opponents that they are being subjected to a purge.
Mr. Shultz, first off, wants to restore ambassadorial posts abroad to manning by career diplomats. He wants to do the same to key State Department posts.
Such depoliticization of the foreign-policy machinery is sound. The American Academy of Diplomacy, an organization of men and women who have held distinguished diplomatic assignments, in early December made the case for what Mr. Shultz is now trying to do.
''We fully understand the desire of a President to have ambassadors responsive to policies established by his administration,'' said the academy in a statement. ''We believe he will be well served by the professionals in the Foreign Service and by those persons who are appointed from outside the career service with comparable qualifications. Once appointed, however, such persons, while reflecting the policies and views of an administration, would make clear by their actions that they are serving not a political position, but the whole nation.''
The academy partly had in mind the endorsement, during the recent political campaign, of an incumbent senator by 22 ambassadors now serving the Reagan administration. It also objected to political appointments to midlevel policy posts at Foggy Bottom.
There is another point to what Mr. Shultz is about, however, that is equally important. It has been said, with justification, that the Reagan administration in its first term had defense and domestic strategies, but not a coherent, consistent foreign-policy strategy. Mr. Shultz must get on with meeting that need. He is getting cooperation from the President's White House staff. Together , they have been providing the thrust for the early January arms discussion in Geneva. In Central America too, the talk has changed from the Alexander Haig era's ''domino'' emotionalism to more of a no-nonsense approach under Shultz. In Asia, who knows what turns will be taken on trade issues, or the evolution of regimes in the Philippines and the Korean peninsula during the next four years? In the Middle East, it is unthinkable that the Lebanon, Iran-Iraq, and Israeli territorial disputes could be allowed to drift without meaningful American diplomatic efforts to influence the outcome.
Mr. Shultz needs the freedom to build his diplomatic house unencumbered by ideological flying buttresses - without meddling by appointed diplomats and staff with differing political agendas.