Remember when the old Department of Health, Education and Welfare turned its computers loose looking for federal employes who still owed government loans or were on welfare rolls? Well, here comes another version of that exercise.

The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) is going to open up its computerized list of all federal employes and permit the Agriculture Department to search for individuals who are receiving food stamps while working part or full time for the government. Advance word on this new attempt to catch welfare cheaters in the bureaucracy is in the april 10 Federal Register (page 21508). It takes the form of a notice by OPM of a "proposed new routine use for an existing system of records."

Of course this is not a "routine" use in any sense of the word. It is carried out under a program begun by the Carter administration that permitted for a limited period of time the matching of federal employe names with recipients of federal welfare program money.

Here is how it will work. The Agriculture Department will give OPM a tape with the Social Security numbers of all individuals receiving food stamps. OPM will then match that tape with its central personnel data file. On those individuals where a "match" is found, OPM will turn over to USDA the name involved, "date of birth, salary, work schedule (full time, part time or intermittent), geographic location (duty station) and the agency identification. . . ."

Under OPM regulations, the "disclosure of name, agency, salary and duty station location is permitted without the data subject's prior approval."

But not all the information being passed on fits that category. Transfer to USDA of the individual's date of birth and work schedule "are not considered to be public information," the notice admits, but adds "anticipated benefits to the public justify disclosure of this information. . . . Disclosure . . . will permit USDA to assure greater integrity of its food stamp programs" and guarantee federal employes "conduct themselves in a proper manner and not obtain financial benefits in a fraudulent manner."

As a protection to the individuals involved, Agriculture will only be able to hold on to the matching names for six months and the program will expire Nov. 11, 1981.

The HEW program, by the way, eventually fell on hard times. The Defense Department refused to turn over its employe lists. Later, a congressional review charged the program may have infringed on Privacy Act requirements and was in the end not cost-effective. In other words, more was spent for the computer runs and follow-up than the government collected from the delinquent borrowers and cheaters it discovered.