Jack H. Watson, the President's assistant for intergovernmental relations, came to town last week to find out how the Federal Regional Council in New England was doing. Among the things he learned was that Boston Mayor Kevin White didn't know what a Federal Regional Council was.

It turned out that the Boston mayor was not alone.

At a series of meetings the day after his late-night meeting with White, Watson quickly learned that city managers, selectmen and small-town mayors in Massachusetts had an even dimmer idea about the council and its mission. Gov. Michael Dukakis, with a customary delicacy of phrase, pronounced it "a zero." And Lt. Gov. Thomas O'Neill said the council had been "absolutely useless" in coordinating federal programs in New England.

O'Neill, son of House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill, is in charge of intergovernmental relations for Massachusetts. His aides drew straws to see who will attend the monthly meetings of the regional council. The losers goes.

"All this is a far cry from the blame of trumpets that greeted the creation of the councils by the Nixon administration. Then, the councils were supposed to be an integral part of the New Federalism" that would give States and local government a large say in their own destinies.

In the interest of bringing government closer to home, the nation was divided into 10 federal administrative regions. A council was located in each region for the express purpose of coordinating federal assistance to states, cities and countries.

It had not exactly worked out that way. After the cosmetic triumph of their creation, the councils in most regions languished, uncertain of their purpose or of their authority.

One of the horror stories of intergovernmental ineffectiveness that came to illustrate the problem occurred in 1972 in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., in the aftermath of flooding caused by Hurricane Agnes.

Under provisions of the Federal Disaster Relief Act the federal government had responsibility for providing housing to the flood victims. First, the government paid living costs for persons who had lost their homes. Then the Small Business Administration loaned money for the rebuilding of some structures while the Corps of Engineers repaired others. Then the Department of Housing and Urban Development used the area for an urban renewal project.

The net result residents were paid for relocating and their rebuilt homes were torn down for urban renewal.

"There was an, estimated $300 million paid out in extraordinary costs that should not have been incurred," recalls Walt Kallaur, then with the Office of Emergency Preparedness and now with the Carter administration's intergovernmental office. "The Federal government looked extremely stupid and wasteful."

Not all stories of intergovernmental cooperation are so doleful. On the other extreme is Kitsap County, Washington, where a regional council has coordinated efforts of several agencies and levels of governments to provide schools, roads and law enforcements for a rural area that has open transformed into a Trident submarine base. But the prevailing view is that such examples are few and far between.

One of the leading critics of the federal councils is former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter.

"Gov. Carter's experience with the [WORD ILLEGIBLE] was disastrous," Watson said. First week at a variety of meetings including one with the New England Federal Regional Council. "He never could get any help.The federal regional councils were just another knot in the rope. He learned to bypass them and go to Washington."

One of Carter's directives in reorganizing the federal government was that Watson assess the "federal regional presence" and report to him on the options. That report, still unwritten, is scheduled to be sent to Carter this week for his decision.

The only conclusion reached by Watson and his assistant, Larry Gilson, as they launched their fact-finding study was that the councils cannot go on as they presently constituted.

"The President's view is that if these councils don't work or can't be made to work, let's disassemble them," Watson said. "There is no reason to perpetuate a fiction of intergovernmental cooperation."

But the view Watson heard over and over again in Boston - even from public officials who didn't know the councils existed - was that some sort of federal regional coordinating mechanism is badly needed.

Mayors are supposed to have their hands out for "federal dollars," and no doubt some do. But in a two-hour private meeting with Watson last week, not a single New England city official mentioned money. All of their remarks dealt with process and organization - or the lack of it.

One official said he dealt with 12 federal agencies, each with different requirements for citizens participation. Another said he had submitted his city's application for a job retraining program in January but the jobs had not yet been filled because of bureaucratic delays. Other officials complained of conflicting directives from different agencies on hiring, public works and affirmative action.

IT all sounded as if it might have come from a campaign speech by Candidate Carter, ro even from a speech by Ronald Reagan. This was implicitly recognized by Watson in his response to an eloquent denunciation of federal bureaucracy by Newburyport Mayor Byron Matthews: "What you just said could as easily have been said by the President, because that's the way he feels."

But reform will not come easily. If Carter decides to keep the councils and make them more responsive, he risks arousing a host of departmental, intergovernmental and congrssional antagonism.

Right now, the councils antogonize few people because they are so ineffective. As Karl VanAsselt, executive director of the New England Center, puts it, "the council spends 90 per cent of its time trying to figure out what it's supposed to do."

One widely discussed proposal for change is to chair every council with a presidential appointee who would be solely concerned with coordinating the federal agencies in the region and helping them relate to state and local governments. At present the chair of each council is rotated among regional directors of the different agencies. They serve part-time and are usually loyal to their own agency-agency.

An independent chairman presumably would be person attuned to the politics of his region, perhaps a former mayor or governor. This would give local government officials acess to an important federal official in their own region who in turn would have acess to the White House,

However, opponents of the idea fear it also would create a rival political center that could breed its own antagonisms or become, in effect, another layer of bureacracy.

Despite these fears, the proposal four a presidentially appointed regional coordinator was supported by every local official whom Watson talked with in Boston - and by similiar officials during an earlier trip to the Northwest. But the proposal faces opposition within ths programmatic federal agencies such as Health and Welfare, Labor and Transportation. Watson learned to his surprise in Boston that HEW already had withdrawn back to Washington much of the limited authority granted its regional representative.

In a sense the Carter effort to reform the councils - runs counter to the legacies both of Richard Nixon and of the New Deal.

The Nixon legacy, for all the New Federalism rhetoric, is primarily distrust of government. Federal officials in the field fear the Nixon concept of having a "President's man" watch over their shoulder. Public officials on all levels are also distrustful of any Washington-directed efforts at change.

"People are suspicious," says Gilson. "There are presumed to be more ulterior motives than there actually are."

The New Deal legacy shows in the belief expressed within some of the old-line federal agencies that any grant of federal authority to the field will weaken Washinton's role in policy-maing.

This view is not shared by Waston, who belives that there are, as he puts it, differnces in designing a jobs program for Boise and for Los Angeles.

Explaining how times had changed since the mid-1960s, Watson said: "We're not short on good ideas, good new programs. We've got lots of ideas. It's in the imperfect delivery of job and health and other programs that the failures occured. I'm suggesting that we demand standards of performance and then give the regions some discretion."

Watson had two limited successes on his Boston trip. One came at the Federal Council meeting when John McGlennon, a Republican and the regional administrator of the Enviornmental Protection Agency, spoke out against a presidentially appointed council chairman. Watson answered that he saw this person as a coordinator who would help the federal agencies do a better job of intergovernmental and interagency relations.

Afterward, he and McGlennon continued the discussion in a private room and Watson asked for more details about his opposition. McGlennon said he had changed his mind during the discussion and now supported the idea.

"I was reacting to the OMB (Office of Management and Budget) effort to push us around, the Nixon effort to get control of the government," McGlennon said.

The other success was a negative one. Watson won the plaudits of the New England city and town officials - a group that has been promised much - for promising them very little.

"I don't know where we'll come out on this or what the decision is going to be," he told them in response to pleas for improved federal coordination. "I don't know what we'll pull off. I'm not going to make any grandiose promises to you. If I said anything else you'd know I was full of - of nonsense."