A couple of years back a congressional committee asked a major federal department for a list of the outside experts it had used, why some were paid $250 a day for advice and why none of the 2.8 million bureaucrats on the payroll couldn't have done the same thing. The dependent agreed it was an excellent question. It promptly hired an outside consultant to work up its report on use of outside consultants.

The General Accounting Office says in a new report that there is a lot of that sort of thing going on in our government. When it comes to consultants, GAO believes, Uncle Sam frequently doesn't know which end is up. Or what it costs to keep it up.

For instance the congressional watchdog agency says that when the government says it spent $278 million (as it reported in 1979) on consulting service contracts, it really means it spent about $2 billion. Too often, GAO believes, federal and military managers hire contractors to keep payrolls down and then proudly tell Congress, public and press that they are reducing the bureaucracy and saving bucks.

The new GAO report (B-201794) notes that federal civilian employment dropped 120,000 bodies between 1970 to 1980, while federal spending rose nearly 200 percent. During that same 10-year period GAO auditors figure that the money government spent on service contracts, adjusted for inflation, went up 28 percent. That part of the report is enough to make consultants, think tanks, the so-called Beltway Bandits, white with rage. But there is more.

GAO also estimates that 400,000 federal workers, in 11,000 commercial and industrial ctivities, are performing jobs that might well be done by the private sector. GAO isn't talking about farming out tax collection, air traffic control or printing of money, but says the government needs to run federal vs private cost comparisions on such operations as janitorial services, key-punching, and guard services.

The GAO feels that Congress should require federal agencies to come up with regular reporting systems that would show what kind of services contractors are performing, when they stop being advisers and become bosses or policymakers, and what services might better be contracted out.

It says that $19 billion worth of functions such as art and graphics services, film and videotape production, laundry services, guard, architectural and engineering services, some types of building security and cleanup crews might be shifted to contractors. The point GAO feels is nobody in government knows how much is being spent on what, or who should be doing it. There oughta be a law, GAO says, requiring somebody to find out.