When a Washington undertaking is on its face foolish and costs millions, it's easy to attack. But what if it's something that appears worth doing, the amounts of money involved are piddling and the only real issue is the philosophic one of why the federal government has taken on the job?

A proposed program by the Department of Education's Institute of Museum Services (IMS), outlined in the Jan. 22 Federal Register (page 7002), illustrates the problem.

The idea of the program, called "assistance for institutional assessment," is to offer small, local museums some federal money to get a bit of professional advice on how they might improve the way they run their operations.

But a closer look raises questions.

The grants, for example, will be limited to only $600 per museum. The entire program will cost only $200,000 next year.

What, you may ask, will that buy? According to officials with the IMS and the American Association of Museums, which will supervise the grants, the money will be used as follows:

$200 to the museum association for its role.

$50 to pay for a prearranged package of memberships in a varity of professional museum associations and subscriptions to technical assistance publications.

$100 to pay the honorarium for a consultant (to be chosen by the museum association) who will visit the local museum for a day or slightly longer and examine its operations.

$250 to pay for travel and lodging of the consultant and any other costs involved.

The purpose, according to the register notice, is helping these small institutions "to improve their services, to enhance their institutional capacity and to increase their level of financial support from private and other nonfederal sources."

But the benefits to IMS, the federal agency handing out the money, are just as important. It expects about 400 small museums to seek the funds, institutions which "could not otherwise participate in IMS programs, thus helping to improve museum services in a wider geographic area."

In other words, the program will help IMS increase its constituency and thus possibly help gain political support for future, bigger programs -- or, at least, additional life for IMS.

Why couldn't the museum association have come up with the $200,000 from a foundation or single large private donor in the first place, and kept the entire thing out of the hands of Washington? Neither the IMS official nor the museum association official had an answer to that.