The United States Information Agency, which is charged with getting this nation's message across overseas, admitted yesterday that it has fail-over the years to find out what people in other countries really think of America.

To try to overcome the failure, USIA Director John E. Reinhardt told reporters, the agency has asked polling expert Daniel Yankelovich to explore how it can better assess foreign attitudes.

"Over the years we've never been terribly satisfactory" at finding out about opinion in other nations and at advising the President, Secretary of State and Congress or such opinion as it affects U.S. foreign policy, Reinhardt said. He called the failure "disturbing."

Reinhardt referred to a report by USIA's citizen-watchdog agency, the U.S. Advisory Commission on Information, which said last spring that "USIA has had only a spotty record in providing our presidents with information about foreign perceptions of the U.S. A world power, bereft of such information, cannot comport itself with understanding, empathy and awareness in the conduct of its foreign affairs."

Reinhardt added yesterday, "An administration that is stressing openness and human rights can be very well served by our agency if we knew more assuredly about foreign attitudes, if we listened as well as spoke."

He said that over the next three months Yankelovich, president of the New York attitude-research firm of Yankelovich, Skelly and White Inc., will assist USIA "in improving our research and evaluation" of foreign attitudes about the United States.

Yankelovich, who attended Reinhardt's breakfast meeting with reporters, said he would not do any polling for the agency.But he will "work out a blueprint" for discerning foreign attitudes through such sources as historical and cultural studies, polls and surveys, institutes here and abroad that study opinion in various countries, and scholars, press and leadership groups overseas.

Yankelovich, a research professor of psychology at New York University and a visiting professor at the New School for Social Research in new York City, said he was undertaking the USIA project without charge.

Reinhardt said the Yankelovich effort could lead to changes in the agency's Voice of America programing. The changes could come, not in the news or commentary broadcasts, but in those dealing with music and vignettes on American life, which make up more than 40 per cent of VOA's content, he said.

He also said the project has no relation to the Carter administration's planned reorganization that would create a new agency for public diplomacy combining USIA and the State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.