NOBODY KNOWS how many there are. There could be hundreds -- even thousands. They are members of Reagan's transition team, and they are sweeping through government buildings, trying to find ways to cut out waste and sloth in the bureaucracy. It isn't an easy job, but it has to be done.

As soon as word is passed that a transition team is on the premises, every bureaucrat rushes to his or her desk and gets to work. Bureaucrats have been through it all before, and the transition people are, in most cases, babes in the woods.

This is how it goes:

A transition team member stops by a desk.

"What are you doing?" he asks the bureaucrat.

"I'm working on these authorization papers for my supervisor."

"Where is your supervisor?"

"He took holiday leave and I believe he is in New Hampshire skiing with his family."

"May I see those authorization papers?"

"Of course, sir. As you will note, in the first 40 pages, the authority concurs with the regulations as laid down by the secretary. The next 32 pages deal with the impact study, and this bound report, which is attached, was done by an outside consulting firm.

"We still have one more study to come in, which was done by another consulting team, checking out the findings of the first consulting firm. By the way, I voted for Reagan."

"What exactly are you authorizing?"

"Funds for deregulation of the clam-digging business."

"Why do you need money to deregulate an industry?"

"If you read the report, you'll see that it takes as much money to deregulate an industry as it does to regulate one. My father and mother were both Republicans."

"We're looking for ways to cut out wste and sloth in government. Do you have any ideas?"

"Can I speak frankly, sir? I've been working on this problem secretly for seven years, but no one will listen to me. That's why my first wife also voted for Reagan. First, we have to set up an ad-hoc committee on waste and sloth, which would create a department independent of the inspector general's office. This department would be staffed and housed in its own building so that it would not be contaminated by the people who are throwing the taxpayer's money down the drain. I have the plans here for the new building if you would like to see them."

"It's a very large building."

"When you're looking for waste and sloth in government, you can't operate on a shoestring. Once we get the department in shape, I suggest we turn it into an independent agency, which would report directly to you."

"But I'm only on the transition team. I don't believe I'll be around after Jan. 20."

"That's a pity. It was your idea, and you can't see it consummated. Can I have your name, sir? I'd like to tell the president-elect you're the most valuable transition team person I've talked to."

"It's Elrod. Melvin Elrod, of Tulsa, Okla."

"It's an honor to meet you, Mr. Elrod. My name is Duval, Harvey Duval. My supervisor's name -- the one who is skiing in New Hampshire -- is Garfield Flieger."

"What kind of supervisor is he?"

"A very fine person. You can go into his office. It's the one that has a personally autographed photo of President Carter on the wall."