Somewhere among the thousands of pieces of paper accumulating in the hundreds of file drawers at President-elect Ronald Reagan's transition office, there is a memo from a Reagan adviser who had a bright idea about how the transition should be run.

Near the start of the general election campaign, this adviser -- then on the Reagan-for-president staff -- proposed that if Reagan won, he should deliberately run an austere transition, a small-staff, small-budget operation that would use only half of the $2 million Congress had provided for the incoming president. It would be a symbol, the adviser said, of Reagan's determination to reverse the trend toward bigger government.

The memo was brushed aside. Reagan still says he is determined to cut the government, but his transition today hardly reflects that goal. His administration-in-waiting, sprawling through nine floors of federal office space at 1726 M St. NW, has so many employes that no one can produce a definite count (estimates range from 588 to 1,200); it has so much paper work that the bill for photocopying will excede $50,000, and it has spent so much money that a 50 percent cost overrun is preedicted (the extra $1 million will come from private contributions).

And nearly every day senior transition officials are forced to dissociate themselves from embarrassing reports leaking out of the dozens of transition teams and advisory groups.

The Reagan people, including Verne Orr, the transition financial controller, admit that things have gotten somewhat out of hand and that the transition operation has grown bigger and more complex than they had expected. But they point out that setting up what is, in effect, a new federal agency almost overnight is inherently a difficult operation to control. f

Four years ago, the Carter transition had some of the same problems controlling workers who seemed determined to announce "administration policy" weeks before the Carter administration took office.

But the Carter people managed to complete the transition job under budget (they returned about $300,000 of the $2 million authorization to the federal treasury), and they also managed to finish some tasks that the Reagan people have not been able to get a grip on.

Within a month after the 1976 election, the Carter transition office made public a list of transition workers and their federally funded salaries. Reagan's people have been trying for weeks to do the same, but so far there is no list.

One reason, according to transition press secretary James Brady, is that nobody seems to know precisely who is working for the transition. Asked last week how many people are employed by the "Office of the President-Elect" -- the transition's formal title -- Brady noted that there were 588 listings in the most recent telephone directory, but he added that there could be twice as many people involved when all members of all transition teams in specific agencies are included.

Another problem is that Edwin Meese III, Reagan's closest adviser and the director of the transition, apparently doesn't want to make the transition workers' salaries public. Orr, the controller, promised last Thursday to make a salary list public within 24 hours.

Twenty-four hours later there was no list, and Orr suggested to reporters that Meese had held it up.

Federal law required that federally paid salaries be made public. About 220 transition workers are being paid by the federal government, Orr says. The others are paid with money from Reagan contributors, or are working without compensation.

As for the budget overrun, Orr says he never expected to carry out the transfer of power for the $2 million Congress appropriated. He says inflation is the main reason that extra money has to be raised.

Breaking down the costs of the operation into rough categories, Orr says about $1.5 million will be spent on salaries, about $250,000 on travel expenses for the president-elect and his immediate entourage, about $200,000 for travel and living expenses for other transition personnel (including 45 apartments the transition has rented in Washington), and the remainder on telephone bills and similar overhead.

Buried in the "overhead" account is a $50,000 chunk for photocopying, and anyone who has strolled through the transition offices will find that easy to believe. The place is a sea of paper, with reports stacked on reports, which are stacked on still more reports.

The transition teams now scouting some four dozens federal agencies have been filing biweekly reports and will continue to do so until mid-January. These reports are supposed to bring the new Cabinet officers and appointees up to speed on the offices they are taking over.

Veterans of the Carter transition say that similar reports they prepared four years ago didn't get much use, in part because there were just too many reports for anyone to read.

The Reagan transition office is also a major exporter of official-sounding paper work. Everyone is particularly sensitive to the president-elect's political relations with other branches and levels of government, so a lot of the "work" performed at the transition each day involves stroking those constituencies by mail.

In one big office on the fourth flooor, a squad of "liaison" officials and typists spends most of the day dispatching letters based on this formula: "Dear Senator S-----: Thank you for suggesting George B----- for a position with the new administration. We will be in contact with him and think he can make an important contribution to the government. Sincerely. . . ."

Among those who probably will make contributions to the government when Reagan takes over are the people who have put together the Reagan transition. Orr said last week that he expects about 80 percent or more of the people working on the transition -- however many there may be -- will land government jobs after the inauguration.