Federal agencies, which for decades have grappled with the dollars and cents of the federal budget, are picking their way through a new type of balance sheet--the information collection budget, or ICB.

Born of the Carter administration's Paperwork Reduction Act of 1980 and embraced by the Reagan administration, the information budget requires departments to try to calculate the paperwork burden that their regulations impose, and then try and reduce it, much as they try to control their spending.

Business groups like the National Small Business Association and the National Federation of Independent Businesses have called the process a step in the right direction, but say it's too early to evaluate its success.

Those involved agree the ICB is still in its formative years. "It's not an exact science by any means," but the accuracy of the ICB improves the more the department works with it, said Karen S. Lee, a deputy assistant secretary of transportation who supervises the process for her department.

Marvin Gordon, director of DOT's Information Systems and Telecommunication Policy, said the ICB has resulted in "an attitudinal change. The process requires us to be aware that every time we create a paperwork burden, we know what that burden is. We count that burden in hours, and we handle those hours like dollars."

Gordon, who assists Lee in administering the DOT information budget, said each department "is budgeted by the Office of Management and Budget with a ceiling to work within, much like a financial budget. So if you're going to increase one thing, you've got to cut something else."

For fiscal 1982, for instance, OMB has approved a burden of 601.7 million hours for the Treasury Department, most of it for the Internal Revenue Service. The State Department, by contrast, can only generate 2.4 million hours of paperwork.

OMB required most agencies to trim their required paperwork this fiscal year; the exceptions were the National Science Foundation, which has a biennial survey of science to do, and the Veterans Administration, which is readying a major survey on Agent Orange.

Lee's office at DOT starts compiling its information budget in about April, when it receives instructions from OMB. Every federal regulation, requirement or rule with reporting or record-keeping requirements requires an analysis of the paperwork it will generate. DOT processed 523 such reports last year.

Lee's office then meets with each agency within DOT and sometimes with the individual program managers who normally provide the paperwork calculations. The reports are sent back to Lee's office for review and consolidation and submitted around August to OMB, which then holds meetings with officials from each agency on the reports.

OMB reviews the paperwork budget, like it does the agencies' normal budget requests, and may recommend cuts or turn down requests for increases. OMB recently claimed that because of the new paperwork budgets, Americans will spend nearly 200 million fewer hours filling out government forms and records by the end of this fiscal year.

In addition to preparing the annual information budgets, Lee's office must review requests for new paperwork burdens created by new or modified regulations. Any request DOT approves must be forwarded to OMB, which has turned down one in 12 of the requests it received from all the departments in the last year.

Estimates of the hours needed to fulfill a new paperwork burden are based on information supplied by field offices and affected groups. That estimate is then multiplied by the number of groups or individuals who would have to fill out the forms to get the total burden.

DOT estimated that in fiscal 1981 that its information burden was 212.9 million hours. It requested 191.5 million burden hours from OMB for fiscal 1982, but was limited to 186.5 million hours.

To achieve the 12.4 million cut, Lee's office has targeted three areas--aircraft certification and record-keeping, ship vessel documentation and truck drivers' logs--where it believes it can cut most of those hours.

DOT has proposed that on short trips, truck drivers not be required to log their hours and that some reporting and record-keeping requirements for aircrafts and ships be consolidated or eliminated. DOT is also trying to see whether some of these figures could be tallied automatically by electronic devices.

"One irony is that on occasion, industry will actually clamor for more record-keeping requirements," said Samuel Podberesky, deputy assistant general counsel for regulation and enforcement. For instance, manufacturers would rather keep detailed records of major airplane alterations rather than wait for FAA inspectors to come and inspect the plans, which could delay the modifications for months.