Takes one to know one, right? If so, our Uncle Sam sure is on the right track. He is paying consultants to find out what his other consultants are doing. Makes sense:

Anxious to discover how many high-prices outsiders it had on the consultant payroll, the giant Department of Health, Education and Welfare hired a consultant (for just under $400,000) to use HEW data to count its consultants.

Anxious to discover what forms and permits it requires of some business firms, the Department of Energy -- the new paradise for consultants -- hired a consultant to find out what forms DOE wants, requires, uses and why. One can only wish him Godspeed.

Realizing it was "overstaffed" with bureaucrats, a Navy unit here encouraged -- via a reduction in force -- that lady who ran the office copying machine to retire. She did. Now she is working in the same shop, as a consultant. Her job: She runs the office copying machine.

HEW, whose middle name used to be "education," hired a consulting firm to take an "attitude survey" of 1978 college graduates. Price tag according to the General Accounting Office was between $160,000 and $325,000. It wouldn't suprise many people if the 1978 college graduates decided to go into consulting for the government.

Commerce Department hired an outfit for $25,000 to develop the "concept" of a floating department store. (Concept aside, it was for a Japanese trade fair.) The department said it didn't have the in-house expertise to get the job done. However, congresisonal investigators say the consultant "flopped." Civil servants already on the Commerce payroll finished the job.

Sen. David Pryor (D-Ark.) says the Department of Energy -- one of the fastest growing portions of the bureaucracy -- spent $478,000 on outside exports to provide clerical, typing and photocopying services.

If you want a look into the "consultant cult" inside federal agencies, pick up the current issue of The Washington Monthly. Two fascinating pieces on the subject. Have a towel handy.

One story, "The Art of Further Study" by Gregg Easterbrook, gives some first-rate consulting horror stories. Like the $46,000 Agriculture Department study to find out how long it takes to cook breakfast. Or the Energy Department consultant who made $320 a day, for 61 days. When the magazine asked his name, DOE said it had to be kept confidential to protect his "competitive position." The story also tells how to set up a consulting shop, and how to impress agencies -- example, never give the most current data, save that for the next contract.

Story number two is a born-again confession by Diane Cleemput. It is called "I Was a Teen-Age Consultant." Cleemput gives inside dope on how some firms operate. And how they separate the "goats" from the "key" people -- it is worth the price to find out which you are -- and how romance can sometimes determine how much of your money is spent by Uncle Sam getting somebody to estimate how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.