Government is wasteful, inefficient - and necessary. A year after Ronald Reagan's election on the theme of getting the federal government off the public's back, and after 11 months of congressional hacking at federal outlays, the public persists in expecting an active, interventionist federal government.
These are among the findings of a major new opinion survey on the role of government and the private sector, conducted for the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) by the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research. AEI has provided the Reagan administration with key personnel and policy research.
The ''Reagan revolution'' is apparently having a tough time altering basic attitudes and expectations about who takes the lead in meeting social needs - government, business, or private voluntary organizations.
It is not so much a question of who should as who will provide the services. The public wants more of a private-sector role, and it thinks charitable activity, even when not absolutely necessary, is healthy for the community. But in the crunch of day-to-day decisions, the public still looks to government to deliver - however much the public wishes government were as efficient as business, and as high-minded as the private charities.
Politically, the survey's findings suggest there may be a limit to how long the Reagan team can exploit public disgust for government waste.
The pollsters' findings indicate the public still has an -urgent ''to do'' list. They show that Americans think total spending from all sources, government and nongovernment, is already too low for the elderlys' needs, job training, education, and basic scientific research. And after Washington cutbacks, the public thinks the private sector - corporations, charities, churches, and individual citizens - will fail to make up the loss.
Those polled seemed willing to experiment with private initiatives. They were closely divided on a proposed voucher system for elementary and high school education, in which government would provide funding but parents could use vouchers for public or private schools as they chose. Clearly they preferred business as a boss. By almost 2 to 1, they would prefer to work for private industry than for government. More would advise a young go-getter to work for a large -business (46 percent), than for the government (19 percent).
Institutions like the family, churches, and voluntary and neighborhood associations are regarded by Americans as very important - though somewhat weakened in recent years. The federal government and unions are seen as having too much influence in the public's daily life, while private organizations, local and state government, and business corporations have about the right influence.
On balance, the public appears to hold a fairly traditional view of government responsibilities. It sees the states as chiefly responsible for highways and college and university education. Local units are looked to for lower education, or to a shared role with the states for mass transit. But the federal government is picked for the lead in caring for the poor, protecting the environment, and assuring civil rights. Only in fostering the arts did those polled put the lead role outside of government.
Ironically, the poll shows that the American public thinks the balance of responsibility has tipped too far toward the federal government at the same time it ascribes responsibility to the federal government to guarantee the delivery of services.
Public ambivalence toward government comes out in many ways. A majority agrees government regulation makes the workplace safer than if corporations were left to their own devices, and by the same measure agrees that regulation makes products a good deal more expensive than they need be.
The public thinks government should play ''a major role'' in encouraging economic development, helping American business compete abroad, protecting the environment, and seeing to it that all Americans get good health care and have enough jobs.
Much of this list sounds like the Democrats' supposedly repudiated agenda of the past decade.
But the government also is seen as doing a bum job. According to the Roper poll, 70 percent of the public think tax money spent for human services is used poorly. Out of each dollar the government spends on helping the poor, only a dime actually gets to the people who need help, responded most of those polled. By contrast, the same majority thought half of each dollar given to charities like the United Way actually goes to the needy.
Private-sector efficiency appeals to the public. Government workers are seen working less hard and as less likely to come up with new ideas for products and services than their counterparts in private industry.
The public likes the idea of a business sector with a social conscience. By 2 to 1 those polled thought business should ''undertake to solve social problems and improve the quality of life at its own expense, holding its profits to a modest level.'' They rejected the notion that ''business should confine itself to making goods and services at maximum profits, thus making its social contributions by providing maximum tax dollars to permit others to deal with social problems.''
''The American public is hedging its bets,'' concludes Burns Roper, chairman of the Roper Organization, which did the field work for the AEI study.
''They don't wholly trust big government, big business, or big labor. They approve the efficiency but not the aims of business, the goals but not the efficiency of government.''
On the question ''Where do you think the truly important work in solving our country's problems will be done in the next 10 years or so,'' the government was given a slight edge: 35 percent of those surveyed picked the government, 30 percent picked private organizations, and 29 percent picked both.