Is the computer anything more than a high-class paper shuffler in the federal government?

If not, Rep. Charles Rose (D-N.C.) warned this week, "the computer is going to be out on the street... on the jobless lines along with other government workers" as the people demand less government.

Addressing the opening session of a three-day federal data processing exposition, Rose warned that a proliferation of often conflicting federal policies about computers and information processing raises serious questions about the government's ability to cope with problems of the 1980s.

"We have to perfect a procedure in government that can cope with the information explosion while improving communication between Congress and the people we represent and serve. This rquires the development of information-handling policies focused in a coherent direction rather than packages of bills aimed at a variety of targets as we have now," he continued in a keynote to the largest computer exposition and conference ever held here.

In the last Congress, about 1,500 bills were introduced that affected federal information policies. Seventy-four were passed. But none really focused on the role of data processing, Rose complained.

"While they included mandates for new computer systems or data bases, directives for collecting or disseminating information, calls for the introduction of new telecommunications systems, provisions for protecting the rights of privacy and a host of other information-related matters, their primary concern was the resolution of energy, clean water, food, health, foreign investment, ethics and other issues," said Rose.

Noting that use of information-handling equipment is still an unknown quantity in much of the legislative process, Rose said the executive branch also must change its policies by erasing the image of computer use as a "mysterious" endeavor capable of being handled only by experts.

"We're fast getting to an era where there will be no need for a separate department to run computers in every agency around this town, any more than we need separate departments to answer the telephones and use type-writers," Rose said in an interview. The facilities should be put in place for all to use, he added.

The Fayetteville, N.C., Democrat restructured the North Carolina state government's state budget process through use of computers while working in that state's administration. He was not alone in warning yesterday about a future government crisis with computer technology.

John Eger, the former White House telecommunications chief under Presidents Nixon and Ford, said that regulatory confusion and a lack of congressional focus reduce the opportunity to cut budgets and improve government efficiency in delivery of services.

Federal government spending for automated data processing, data communications and allied electronic equipment is growing at a rate of $10 billion a year, or about one-fifth the estimated $50 billion depreciated investment the government already has invested in such equipment.

In a panel discussion of various computer issues, Eger said the federal investment "represents an awesome amount of processing power that could be used for the national good... if only federal policymakers would allow it to happen."

But a "maze" of data-processing regulations issued by Congress and various agencies "is so confusing and so lacking in focus that agency users and industry vendors (companies that sell equipment) often give up in their attempts to move things forward. The problem... is lack of hands-on computer experience by those who make the rules and... lack of attention to achievements in industry where these regulations do not apply."

In an interview, Eger warned that the government is providing "no policy guidance... no understanding of interrelated information based tools that are now the underpining of the post-industrial society and economy."