CONTRARY to com-mon perception, the federal bureaucracy is not a perpetual growth machine.
Since Vice President Al Gore Jr. launched the administration's drive to streamline government a year ago, the federal payroll has shed about 71,000 jobs.
Shrinking the federal work force is one promise the Clinton administration appears to be making good on. In the campaign, President Clinton vowed to cut 100,000 jobs from the 2-million federal civilian work force.
As Mr. Gore's National Performance Review developed its plan to reinvent government last year, it raised that ante to 252,000. Congress passed legislation to offer buyouts to employees to start the downsizing, and in the process it raised the ante again to 272,800.
The numbers are measured from the federal employment in 1993, and the deadline is 1999.
Fifteen thousand people accepted the buyouts after they took effect last March. The rest of the 71,000 left government service under an existing buyout plan offered by the Defense Department.
White House planners expect another surge of buyouts - between 50,000 and 60,000 - beginning next month. The White House Office of Management and Budget has asked every agency to send in plans for its share of staff cuts, with emphasis on cutting the middle layers of management and headquarters staffing.
Outside studies of the effort to reinvent government say that the focus on downsizing the work force could work against the larger effort to change the culture of the bureaucracy, making it more effective and efficient and concerned for its citizen-customers. Federal employees worried about keeping their jobs may be less capable of the innovative thinking that Gore seeks from them.