By demanding information on government hiring practices, the US Commission on Civil Rights went to the brink of open conflict with the White House. And the brinkmanship may be paying off.
After commission members voted unanimously to subpoena information from the executive branch, the White House promised to supply the documents in question, according to commission chairman Clarence L. Pendleton Jr.
''President Reagan assures me that the White House and federal agencies will honor our requests,'' Mr. Pendleton says. ''And Larry Speakes (press spokesman) has announced this message to a White House press conference.''
Threatening a subpoena was a daring step for the commission to take. In its 26-year history, the commission has never used such a weapon. Pendleton, usually at odds with the five other commission members, joined them March 21 in the vote to confront the administration.
The Civil Rights Commission claims it is frustrated and stymied by unanswered requests for ''routine information'' on government hiring and firing from the White House and its 26 federal departments and agencies.
Black federal employees and Barbara Brooks, spokeswoman for the commission, have suggested the Reagan administration has not vigorously enforced civil rights legislation in regard to minorities and women in government service. They say blacks have suffered disproportionately in reduction-in-force (RIF) policies and ''forced'' early retirements.
The commission, says Ms. Brooks, has encountered difficulties with the administration in these areas:
* Presidential appointments of blacks, both to the White House staff and to federal agencies. The Joint Center for Political Studies, a black think tank, says President Reagan has named 81 blacks to office compared with 144 for the Carter administration.
* Difficulties with various federal agencies in acquiring ''routine information,'' documents, and reports freely given by previous administrations, Republican and Democratic.
''We can't do our job if we get no cooperation,'' Ms. Brooks says. ''We sent a three-page letter to the President explaining our plight. We advised that we were scheduling an April 25 public hearing and would seek to subpoena required information from federal agencies and departments.''
During the first half of 1982, 39.2 percent of all RIFs in the federal government have been black employees, says Mildred Goodman, national president of Blacks in Government. In addition, 34.4 percent of all ''involuntary retirements'' were black workers, she says.
''I would call 'last hired, first fired' too simplistic an explanation of the 1982 RIFs. The new merit rating policy offers too much room for subjective decisions,'' she says.
Blacks in Government has formed a task force to study the government's RIF policies, to collect and analyze data, and to issue reports on federal agencies' specific actions, Mrs. Goodman says.