There exists in Washington, D.C., a federal employee whose job is to eliminate waste effort.

Unbelievable, you say?Even more so when you learn that this courageous soul, this upstream swimmer, toils in the (gasp) Pentagon, otherwise known as the land of the mimeo and the home of the waste.

Robert F. Kelley knows he is not the most popular Pentagoner ever to get lost in the E Ring. Do they call you Dr. Bad News? "I guess that's a fair assessment," he replies.

But oh, the results.

In fiscal years '75 and '76, Kelley's hounding and dogging produced $40 million in savings for the Defense Department - paper that was never bureaucratized upon: information that was never sought because it already existed; surveys, studies and reports that were never started because the results were already known.

No, they didn't give Kelley a bonus. No, they didn't slip extra tidbits into those green paychecks with the holes in them. But yes, last month, they did honor Kelley at a Defense Department luncheon. And yes, cynics, the honor was a citation - on a piece of paper.

Still, it was parchment well spent. For no one has ever before saved the feds that much money in that little time, according to several long-serving and long-suffering government spokesmen. Meanwhile, Lord knows, many have spent and overspent $40 million, and more.

It takes the patience of a priest, the legs of an Olympic distance star, the sense of direction of a homing pigeon and the clearance of Someone Important to reach Bob Kelley's office in the DOD comptroller's wing. But it is worth it.

Not only is the office as uncluttered as a monastery (unsurprising), but the occupant is passionate about conservation and is necessity (every surprising).

"Under every president," Kelley said, "we've had periodic evangelistic reduction programs. These always yield significant savings. But then it slips back.

"One reason it does is that the traditionists say: 'What the hell's wrong with the way we're doing it today?'"

Another reason, according to Kelley, is that when in doubt, every government employee who values his scalp will pack too much information into a written document, not too little.

"We had a control emphasis before, but it was applied only after the majority information systems had begun," Kelley said. "So in 1972, we said, 'Hey, you've got to reduce it in the first place."

That was called "management by objectives." It took more than three years to get all the approvals. But what it has meant in practive is this:

If the Air Force, for example, wanted to know how many of its people had deformed big left toes, they would first have to come see Kelley, or see if the information already lay in a memory bank somewhere else up the government.

If it turned out that, say, the U.S. Public Health Service had already done such a survey, Kelley would be in a position both to know that and to obtain the data the Air force wanted.

Thus, not just paper and ink would be saved, but also huge gobs of costly man hours. In fiscal '75 and '76, according to Pentagon records, about 2,000 such projects were rendered unnecessary because Kelley headed them off at the pass. The total savings is well worth repeating - $40 million.

Of course, bureaucrats do not take kindly to the suggestion that what they plan and seek and want is unnecessary. "So it's been kind of an uphill battle," said Kelley. "It's kind of a never-ending process." It is also fraught with enough tension to end, occasionally, "just short of fist fights."

Kelley remembers one man who grew increasingly redder as he listened to the non-duplication pitch. When it ended, he accused Kelley of being after his job.

"He was shouting: 'You can't do this.' That's 90 per cent of my job description!'" Kelley recalled. "But he came in to see me a few months later. Said he was retiring. He said, 'You were right all along. I just wasn't ready to go yet.'"

Indeed, rightness has never been the problem. Clout has.

Jimmy Carter's declaration of war on paperwork during the 1976 Presidential campaign - and his election - "made all this tremendously easier," Kelley said.

"Unless you have that kind of clout, this program is not going anywhere. You have to hammer every time there's a changing of the guard."

Despite his success, Kelley is no babe in the woods. He knows Defense still "enjoys" a reputation as the most overfed, overhungry child in the federal household. All the more reason then, he argues, why bringing efficiency to Defense is necessary. Success could beam the message that anything is possible all the brighter to other agencies.

"You strike a nerve whenever you put the ax to any information system," says Kelley, 47, a management analyst who has spent 10 years at Defense and who lives in Vienna, Va. "But I'm willing to let the chips fall where they may."

Kelley insists that his performance during '75 and '76 "wasn't a one-man show. We had a lot of things that fell in place for us."

He wishes "garbage control," as he calls it, were a more "sexy or glamorous job," because, "admittedly, there's still an awful lot to do."

Amen to that last one. But hosannas that someone is poised to do it.