Bugged by federal paper work? Complain -- in triplicate

When the National Park Service wanted a 15-minute film on ''The Star-Spangled Banner,'' Guy Baughns thought his media-arts firm would be perfect for the job. In January the Boston businessman asked the Park Service how to bid for the contract. Then for the next six months, Mr. Baughns waded through stacks of federal forms. After a lot of haggling, he got his government contract three weeks ago.

The incident, heard at a recent government hearing here, is one example of a vexing phenomenon of modern times: government paper work. The criticism comes at an especially sensitive time.

Late in 1980 Congress passed a bill that was supposed to chop away at the forest of federal paper work. Appropriately called the Paperwork Reduction Act, it established a kind of time ''budget'' for government agencies. Each had to calculate the time businesses and individuals spent filling out that agency's forms. If the agency wanted to collect new data, the Office of Management and Budget had to OK the additional ''burden hours'' imposed.

This year the OMB reported its success in hacking away at the overgrowth of redundancies, triplicates, and ''notwithstanding heretofores.'' Americans were no longer spending 1.5 billion man-hours a year filling out federal forms, officials boasted. The burden had been reduced to a much more manageable 1.1 billion - roughly five hours for every man, woman, and child in the United States.

OMB officials pointed to the simplified 1040EZ income tax form. Many large businesses also felt the burden ease up. Some federal tax forms and environmental reports have been simplified, notes Richard M. Patterson, government relations manager at the Dow Chemical Company.

But there were complaints, which have grown louder as Congress decides whether to reauthorize the agency that oversees the act. The agency is to expire Sept. 30.

''They've made some progress, but there's a long way to go,'' Mr. Patterson says. In fact, some of his business colleagues are saying the act should be renamed ''the Paperwork Discovery Act.''

In 1980, when OMB calculated the total paper work burden, a lot of federal paper work went uncounted, an OMB official concedes. Since then the agency has included more types of paper work under the act. It also clarified what the act already covered, such as the paper work generated by the federal government's shirt-labeling requirements. In addition, new legislation came along, adding to the burden.

When all the forms are counted, some observers say the total would be at least three times the original estimate of 1.5 billion man-hours.

Meanwhile, others contend the OMB has subverted the paper work act - using its resources to reduce regulations instead. They also point to the delay in setting up a centralized computer system that was supposed to be in place last year to help agencies learn whether the information they sought had already been collected. A prototype of the system is just now nearing completion.

Why does Uncle Sam need so much paper?

In his book on government red tape, Herbert Kaufman of the Brookings Institution argues that the problem stems from the diverse interests of Americans. They try to infuse government with good ideals - compassion, for example - and then let the system generate the necessary rules and interpretations. But they also want fair representation for their own views, requiring an ever-complicated process of allowing different interest groups to have their say.

The Boston hearing is an example. Called by the Small Business Administration to back its case that small businessmen need more help in reducing paper work, it heard a stream of testimony from disgruntled businessmen. In little more than four hours the hearing had produced 40 pages of paper work.

''In industry there's just a lot of mutual trust,'' Baughns said in an interview. A handshake can mean so much to a businessman, he says. Many argue it has little place in government.

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