It seemed simple enough. On Oct. 28, under the signature of Jimmy Carter, a memo was sent to the heads of all executive departments and agencies. The last paragraph contained these presidential instructions:

"Please report to the Office of Management and Budget the efforts you now have under way, or the specific efforts you plan to take, to address those complaints involving your agency. This information should be included as part of your regular monthly reorganization report which is due December 5."

The complaints to which he referred were contained in a special survey commissioned by his governmental reorganization project. And the idea for that survey also seemed simple enough. Back in June, when Carter was briefing the press on his plans to make government work better by reorganizing it, he said his people needed to pinpoint specific instances of inefficiency and confusion. Bright idea: before going to Congress with the administration's reorganization proposals, why not first find out what Congress thought about the least effective government programs?

As the President put it then: "Members of the House and Senate spend a good part of every day helping people cut through government red tape. They know first-hand how the government looks from the receiving end of the services."

Good thought, good politics.

In due course last summer, Richard A. Pettigrew, Carter's assistant for reorganization, wrote to every senator and member of the House.

He told them how much the Preisdent needed their help. To make reorganization effective, the President's people had been instructed to examine how government programs operated from "the bottom up" - that is, "where they affect people directly." The President was seeking "hard information" from them: they were asked to list those federal programs "which currently generate the most dissatisfaction, frustration and confusion on the part of your constituents." Questionnaires, asking for specifics, were enclosed.

Throughout the summer and fall the congressional reponses came pouring into the Old Executive Office Building next to the White House. Some were quite extensive - pages of single-spaced, typed eritiques of various government programs. Many were blunt and harsh in their critism.

"This is the worst," said one congressman of one program.

"Claimants have died before they know the outcome of their cases," was the response from a senator's office.

Obviously, a number of the members were impressed by the effort. "In my 20 years here in the Senate, I cannot recall any administration making a concerted effort to improve federal agency services to the taxpayers who have to pay the bills," wrote Sen. William Proxmire the Wisconsin Democrat. "Because my staff has responded to your request with such enthusiasm, I find their comments too volumninous to fit neatly into your questionnaire. I am attaching their comments in an expanded format which I hope will be suitable to your purposes."

More than a month ago, I sat in an anteroom of Pettigrew's office in the EOB and went through many of the responses. More than 200 House and Senate offices had taken part in the survey by the, and boxes were stacked high everywhere. Taken as a whole, those responses made devastating reading.

Under the category of programs least efficiently administered, for instance, these were among the kinds of remarks:

From Birch Bayh's office: Social Security - "terrible delays": FCC - "very poor liaison": Labor Dept. - "terribly slow": EEOC - "bad backlogs." From John Heinz office: Black lung program. Labor Dept.: "long delays . . . unclear criteria . . . no response from agency for years . . . Senator's staff unable to discuss specific cases with any D.O.L. staff who could provide answers." From Gary Hart's office: Immigration, Justice Dept.: "Excessive delays in processing petitions. Some offices have 18-month backlog": housing loans. Veterans Administration: "Process slow; some sellers will not accept a VA offer": retirement, Civil Service Commission: "It takes a full year to get on computer": death benefits. Civil Service: "Survivors are waiting 3 or more months for life insurance, longer for pension benefits."

On and on, office after office, Republican and Democrat liberal and conservative.

When the President's reorganization staff began breaking down the responses, they found certain common problems. The bulk of the complaints centered on the large federally administered programs that affect great numbers of people. Particularly singled out as problem areas were programs administered by four departments - Labor, Justice, Health, Education and Welfare, and Housing and Urban Development.

The survey material was distributed throughout the government. That's where it stood when the President sent out his memo asking for a report on action taken by Dec. 5 - Monday. End of act one.

When I called yesterday to find out what the President had been tolld, not a single report had been received from the cited problem departments.

AT HUD, an under secretary said missing the deadline was an oversight - just "a mechanical thing." Actually, the secretary was leaving town, but the report was going over by messenger right away: "One day is not - you know." The survey had been helpful, though. He said something about HUD taking steps to "beef up" the effort by adding more people. A few minutes later he called back with, as he put it, "one small correction." If he had said something about "beefing up" the operation, that wasn't right. Please say there were considering beefing it up; "that's the way we are reporting it to the President."

At Labor, the official in charge already had "signed off" on the presidential report. It should be there. Actually, he said, there already had been many meetings on the subject with the secretary and senior officials. But, no matter: Labor already told them any more than "we had recognized from the moment we came into office. So it was not new news."

At HEW, officials had received four thick black loose-leaf binders filled with 861 specific complaints directed at various programs it was administering. These had been studied, catalogued, and high-level meetings conducted on what to do about them.

The survey had been quite helpful, and fit right into the plans of the secretary to take "major initiatives." In fact, the secretary already had announced "Operation Common Sense" - an effort to review, rewrite, and simplify the massive numbers of HEW regulations covering some 6,000 pages in 13 volumes. Missing the deadline had been inadvertent. Seems the report to the President had contained a number of typographical errors, and a paragraph or two run together. But it was on the way.

At Justice, my nominee for a superb public servant came on the phone. She's Doris Meissner, a deputy assistant attorney general, and she had overseen the survey material and ensuing action taken. And there had been a lot of action, particularly in Justice's Immigration and Naturalization Service. She crisply spelled out a number of steps, pronounced the survey a "brilliant thing to do," and one that had been truly useful internally. As for the report, she personally had dispatched it last Friday. Nothing defensive about her at all.

Later, she was calling back, "I've been asked to call to tell you," she said, "that we really did send our report in last Friday." A pause, a laugh, a trace of bemusement in her voice, and: "I feel like I'm telling mother I got my report in."

No, just the Prez.