When General Dynamics Corp. was considering the acquisition of an electronics concern last March, it turned for help to a year-old Washington-based group that specializes in ferreting out federal information.

"We wanted to find out everything possible in the public record about the company, especially pertaining to risk," said John Zimmerman, manager of business analysis for mergers and acquisitions of the St. Louis aircraft and ship builder. "My employer is very concerned about its reputation. It tries to be a good corporate citizen, and it doesn't like to be connected with bad citizens."

In response to Zimmerman's request, the Research Counsel of Washington checked with the Labor Department for possible labor problems and the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for outstanding complaints. That and other research led to a clean bill of health for the target concern. (For other reasons, the acquisition wasn't made.)

"I could have traveled to Washington myself," Zimmerman said. "I knew what I wanted, but I didn't know how to get it."

On every subject from ball bearing to wickerwork, the federal government should be the jumping-off point for business research, says David Bradley, the Harvard MBA who founded the Research Counsel in September 1979. "The federal government, without any close second, is the smartest, most prolific public resource asset" -- and not just on matters of regulation and legislation, Bradley said.

Indeed, the government spent almost $1.6 billion last year just to gather statistics. It employs 3,881 economistts, 12,337 other kinds of social scientists and 1,894 librarians. The problem comes in navigating the maze of federal agencies, offices and departments to locate the facts you seek. m

"It's not easy to find out what the government has collected," says Milo Sunderhauf, a statistician for the Commerce Department.

"It is a great weakness. We find it is easier to get money for data collection than for analysis and dissemination. This results in a lot of data not being used very much," Sunderhauf says.

"A lot of people get frustrated in going after the federal government," Bradley agrees. "They don't like to make six phone calls and be told six times that they've got the wrong place."

To date, the Research Council has handled 140 projects for 90 clients, including Pfizer Inc., Citibank, the Boston Consultting Group and the White House, according to Bradley. "They get me information I don't have time to seek out myself," says Shirley Morabito, manager of market information for Pfizer.

Naturally, the Research Council's 11 staffers aren't the only people engaged in mining the government for facts. The task is often handled by a company's Washington counsel or by attorneys. There also are companies that sponsor seminars on researching in Washington.

"People normally use Washington-related information to solve Washington-related problems. The difference is, they're also using it for non-Washington-related problems," says Matthew Lesko, a partner in Washington Researchers Inc.

Lesko, who claims to have invented the idea of selling a federal government research service to private industry, turned the research part of his business over to Bradley in August when Washington Researchers decided to concentrate on teaching companies to do their own legwork in Washington.

"People haven't used Washington for the real resource that's available," Lesko says. "What we're saying is it can be used for anything," such as the latest technology in water desalinization or the number of left-handed barbeque utensils in New York, he maintains, with those two examples to support his point.