Heavy personnel cuts have seriously hampered the Department of Energy's ability to supervise programs that promote energy conservation and the development of renewable energy sources, the General Accounting Office has told Congress.

Further, GAO said, it "does not believe" attempts by DOE to hire private firms to do the monitoring once performed by federal employes have resulted in adequate controls this fiscal year, and it is uncertain whether they will be adequate in the future.

The report, based largely on interviews with federal employes in DOE's conservation programs, differs sharply from the official administration view of how well things are going and is certain to be added to the arsenal of those questioning whether the private sector can do some jobs better than the government.

The report also points to uncertainties many federal programs have endured as their budget levels and, in the case of much of the Energy Department, their very futures, have hung in the balance. Such difficulties, of course, ripple through the governmental system, affecting state and local programs as well as federal employment.

As an example, GAO pointed to Energy's Office of State and Local Assistance Programs, which administers five nationwide projects to encourage energy conservation.

"Headquarters staff was reduced from 73 to 54 persons by April 30," GAO said. "Of the 54 staff, 24 were newly assigned to the office's three divisions. All seven branch chiefs were replaced and field staff directly involved in administering the office's programs was reduced to 109 persons, a reduction of 52 percent."

As a result, retraining of personnel "was a major problem," complemented by "a loss of experienced top management due to the replacement of all branch chiefs."

Barbara Fleming, a DOE public information officer familiar with the programs, said that she had not seen the GAO report and could not comment on it.

She did say, however, that "we support cutbacks in conservation and renewable because we feel we're in a position where private industry can pick up" the programs.

"You obviously have a different philosophy here," she said. "Based on that different philosophy, cuts are, we feel, acceptable, because we are looking at long-term research and development. . . . Industry has picked up on a great deal of work that was done" by government.