The American public is spending 10 percent less time filling out federal government forms now than in January 1977, according to the Office of Management and Budget's first report on the progress of the Commission on Federal Paperwork.

"We have cut paperwork about 85 million worker hours, the equivalent of 50,000 people working the year "round," said an OMB spokesman. But we have learned some interesting lessons.

"First of all, we found that 78 percent of the time needed to fill out federal forms is used to fill out Internal Revenue Service forms even though the IRS issues only 5 percent of the estimated 5,000 federal forms in use. And only 15 forms account for about 40 percent of the remainder of the time spent on form writing."

The 613 million hours the Treasury Department claims Americans spend each year filling out 260 different tax forms are significant in the OMB study because they represent forms the Paperwork Commission can do nothing about. "The IRS has a special exemption from outside review, but they are taking some actions toward reducing the paperwork burden on their own," the OMB source said.

He said the OMB looked at many of the complaints filed about excess paperwork. "One man suggested that the IRS could save space and reporting time by eliminating the question on the tax form that asks if the respondant has a foreign bank account. But since that question only took one line, we expect he had another motive beyond the desire to cut down paperwork."

OMB reports further suggests that, rather than setting goals of merely cutting down the volume of paperwork, the federal government should be more concerned with attacking the roots of the problem, the "more serious underlying organizational or program problems."

For example, the report suggests, much of the paperwork problem is caused by federal regulation. "It is becoming increasingly hard to divorce public complaints about too much regulation from those about unreasonable reporting burdens," it states. "Rules are largely written by lawyers or other experts using highly legalistic and technical language.

Another cause of growing paperwork is "the rapid growth in statistical activity of recent years." Here, the report suggests a move toward the reduction of duplicative data bases so that the need for some statistical information can be satisfied from existing data sources.

The report also gives examples of "targets of opportunity," which represent "areas where a full-scale evaluation of need and utility is desirable."

Some examples of these targets:

Driver's daily logs. Some 2.5 million truck drivers have to spend 3 minutes each day filling out a log showing how they spent every 15 minutes of time that day. The Department of Transportation requires the information to help insure that the drivers don't spend more time on the road than safety rules permit. But recent studies have shown that drivers frequently keep a fake log showing they have not exceeded safety limits to show inspectors instead of the actual record.

Weekly payroll reports. Practically every construction contractor working on a federally funded project must file weekly payroll reports with the government demonstrating compliance with wage-and-hour work laws. Because this filing requirement takes more than 1.1 million hours of contractors' time, the Department of Labor is working on alternatives such as making only a small sampling of contractors fill out the forms.

OSHA statistics. About 10,000 businesses with 10 or fewer employes exempt from all other OSHA reporting have to keep certain statistics as part of the annual OSHA statistical sampling.

Vocational training reports, Vocational schools qualifying as acceptable for GI-loan-financed education must provide the Veteran's Administration with data showing that at least 50 percent of the graduates of each curriculum "have been employed in occupations related to the course of study." Although filling out forms for this biannual reporting requires 1.3 million hours of time. "The information that has been collected is of questionable validity." Alternatives are being studied.

The report also evaluates the records of the various federal agencies and departments in complying with the recommendations of the Commission on Federal Paperwork. Of an estimated 520 recommendations directed to the executive branch, the report states, 151 have been fully implemented, and 50 have been rejected.

Leading the way is the Commerce Department, which has cut the time needed to fill out its forms by 30 percent. The IRS has cut back 10 percent on its own, while the State Department shows a 19.1 percent reduction; and the Interior Department, 18.4 percent.

But two agencies showed significant movement in the other direction towards more paperwork. Time requirements needed to fill out forms for the Environmental Protection Agency, for example, jumped 20.8 percent. But virtually all of the increase comes from specific reporting requirements of the new Toxic Substances Control Act.

And finally, tied for the bottom spot as the worst offender is none other than: The Office of Management and Budget which wrote this report, managing in the process to make 20.8 percent more work for those who have to report to it.