The office for Civil Rights in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare lacks the "basic data" needed to make decisions in its duty to enforce civil rights law, the General Accounting Office has concluded.

The GAO said in a report that the office "did not know and could not readily ascertain" how many complaints it had received of discrimination by race, sex or national origin.

It also did not know how many complaints had been closed successfully or on some other basis, how much staff time was spent on an average complaint, or if there was any correlation between staff time and the successful resolution of a complaint, the GAO reported.

The review was made at the request of Sen. Birch Bayh (D-Ind.), who described its findings yesterday as "truly appalling."

In a letter to HEW Secretary Joseph A. Califano Jr., Bayh said, "I am sure you will share my incredulity that the Office for Civil Rights has maintained no management information system which could answer such basic questions as the number of complaints, how many complaints have been resolved" and other matters.

At a hearing, the office's new acting director, Albert T. Hamlin, acknowledged there had been a "management problem" under his predecessors but said: the new HEW administration has assigned a task force to begin reorganizing the office.

He assured Bayh that a "coherent, rational process" will emerge to provide for proper policy making.