Task force of businessmen probes waste in government

The Bureau of Indian Affairs has its own highway construction department.

The Department of Transportation lost $12 million in interest income last year, simply by dispensing grant money too soon.

One hundred airport control towers that are open 24 hours a day handle few or no flights after dark.

These are some of the examples of waste in government being mulled over by the President's Private Sector Survey on Cost Control (PPSSCC). This group of business executives, established last June, is now beginning to assemble its final report - while drawing sharp complaints from some members of Congress, who feel the survey is overly secretive and noses into policy matters that are none of its business.

Headed by J. Peter Grace, the chief executive officer of Grace & Co., the PPSSCC is a team of about 1,200 executives from the private sector, subdivided into 35 task forces. Originally scheduled to produce a report at the end of this year, the survey is now running behind schedule, and won't finish its work until the first quarter of 1983, says Felix Larkin, chairman of Grace & Co. and a PPSSCC member.

The final report will contain cost-savings suggestions worth at least $10 billion, Mr. Larkin says, and probably much more - though he scoffs at reports that the survey will claim possible savings equal to half the US deficit.

''I'm confident we'll have a meaningful number of constructive suggestions,'' Larkin says. ''A lot of the suggestions can be acted on by the administration. But over half of them would have to be approved by Congress.''

Larkin won't discuss specific suggestions the survey might make, mentioning only general areas of inquiry: data processing systems that are wildly out of date, for instance.

''We're not getting into major policy areas,'' says Larkin.

The task force scrutinizing the Environmental Protection Agency, for example, is ''going to see if it runs well, not what its regulations are,'' he adds.

But if a preliminary work plan is any indication, the group is delving into much more than management practices.

The plan, which contains $1 billion worth of cost-savings suggestions for the Department of Transportation Task Force to consider, says among other things that reducing the regulatory role of the Federal Aviation Administration could cut 400 employees from the government's payroll, and ''result in millions of dollars of savings by the private sector.''

Eliminating subsidies for certain shipbuilders could save $8 million, the document says, and ''valid policy reasons'' exist for imposing user fees for certain Coast Guard services.

''The instructions we were given were to stay out of policy, but I frankly don't know how you do that,'' one PPSSCC member says. ''Substantial savings are very difficult to get just by being more efficient.''

Rep. William Ford (D) of Michigan has complained that the PPSSCC is treading on Congress's toes by delving into matters of policy, and allowing private-sector executives to investigate agencies that affect their business.

''There's certainly at least the appearance of conflict of interest here,'' says a congressional committee staffer.

The Agriculture Task Force includes employees of Armour & Co., Quaker Oats, and General Foods, for instance. Three members of the Department of Transportation Task Force, which scrutinized the Federal Aviation Administration , are from the aerospace company Martin Marietta. One firm employee listed on the work plan, contacted by phone, would neither confirm nor deny that he served on the task force, and declined comment on the PPSSCC in general.

With 1,200 members ''it would be difficult not to have a few conflicts of interest,'' says a survey member.

But Mr. Larkin of Grace & Co. says that screening to prevent possible conflicts of interest was ''pretty rigorous.''

''We have had no complaints from agencies that these people are hostile,'' he says.

Representative Ford argues that the PPSSCC is simply an extension of the Office of Management and Budget. On Dec. 10 he released a letter to OMB Director David A. Stockman, asking which task forces had already briefed OMB officials.

''We're pretty sure (the task force reports) will find their way into the '84 budget'' before they're made public, says an aide to Ford - a charge Larkin flatly denies.

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