The Carter administration's war on paperwork will suffer some setbacks over the next few months. While more than 1 million federal clerks, lawyers, computer programmers, veterinarians and accountants crank out required what-my-job-means-to-me essays.

Phase one of the program, part of the President's zero-based budgeting concept, is set to begin sometime in April at the Agriculture Department.

Everybody in government knew zero-based budgeting (more on the definition later) was coming. But it was new Agriculture Secretary Bob Bergland who took the proverbail bull by the horns. Other Cabinet officers are waiting tosee how he does. So are Agriculture's 80,661 employees.

The plan, apparently, is that everybody in the departmen - including the 12,000 workers here - will file a statement setting forth in their own words what they do, why they do it, what they think they should be doing that they aren't, and what they aren't doing that they should be.

In meetings with employees, Bergland said the self-evaluations will be used to determine if people are in the right jobs, if they are working on the right missions and whether there is either duplication of work or not enought effort, in various offices and programs.

If people think their job is useless they will be encouraged to put it in writing, with suggestions as to what they should be doing. Once the system gets rolling, Bergland said, ". . . it means that everybody in this place will be busy, will be making a contribution. It means that nobody in this place will be overburdened . . ."

An aide to Bergland said, with remarkable candor, "We don't know if this is going to work! We would like to get a job description" from each employee, "and the reason for the job...we want to match people with jobs that have to be done. If you have somebody with a two-hour day, we will try to figure out how to give him an 8-hour day."

The officials said he hoped the guidelines would not come out as a form. "We don't want people checking boxes." He said the exercise will not result in "mass firings or anything like that. We don't want it, we couldn't do it and he (Bergland) isn't that kind of a guy."

The plan now is for the forms to be submitted to immediate supervisors who will read them and send them further up the chain of command. An Agriculture official said he hoped there would be some language in the instructions to assure people that honest answers and evaluations wouldn't get them in trouble with supervisors.

The zero-based budgetting idea, which Carter says he successfully used to streamline the Georgia state government works something like this: each agency, unit, office and employee begins at the beginning, evaluation the job or mission, and then justifying its existence.

Agriculture officials hope the program will permit them to boost productivity, combine some jobs and cut costs. But in a large outfit like the Agriculture Department - much less the entire U.S. government - getting people to potentially write themselves out of work may not be easy.

When advised that top brass at two other Cabinet departments said they would wait "to see if Agriculture falls on its face" before beginning similar programs, an aide to Bergland said: "They're probably smart."