It was a Census Bureau employe named Herman Hollerith who first got the government hooked on computers by inventing a punch card and tabulation machine for the 1890 census.

Now the government owns 15,949 general-purpose computers, leases 1,554 and employs 200,000 full-time computer science personnel to keep the whole shebang humming.

But while the federal government has more computers than any other organization in the world, critics say that over the past few years it has gone from being a computer innovator to a follower.

Joseph R. Wright, deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, says the government's computer network is at least 10 years behind most private corporations' because of reluctance to replace the big, expensive computers it acquired more than a decade ago.

Some of the older computer programs were developed by employes who no longer work for the government, says Frank J. Carr, the General Services Administration official who oversees the purchase of government computers. As a result, today's programmers don't always understand why an agency's computers are programmed the way they are and are reluctant to tinker with them, even if they need work.

"Often the technology in computers purchased by the federal government was already on the verge of obsolescence because suppliers would offer models about to be revamped at a low price, knowing the government would accept the low bid," Wright said.

Not everyone agrees with Wright's gloomy analysis, though. Last fall, Francis A. McDonough, a deputy procurement officer at GSA, wrote an article in Government Data Systems magazine that defended the government's computer network.

While acknowledging that many of its computers are obsolete, McDonough said most of those are being used for minor chores--such as printing computer data.

"One approach to understanding obsolescence is to accept that the government is something of a pack rat and that there will always be some old computers somewhere," he wrote.

McDonough said the government did move faster than generally believed to buy better systems. In the last six months of 1981, he said, the government awarded 21 computer contracts. If an agency restricted bids to computer companies that made compatible equipment, it took the government 26.7 months to complete a purchase, McDonough said. If offers were accepted from all computer makers, it took 39.3 months.

McDonough argued this was an acceptable period for the purchase of equipment that cost at least $1 million apiece. He also said GSA regulations give agencies enough flexibility to ensure that contractors provide up-to-date equipment.

McDonough also contended it is unfair to compare the government's computer system to corporations' because the federal system is so much larger, routinely processing checks for tens of millions of employes and beneficiaries.

Sophisticated computers are used by the Federal Aviation Administration to keep track of airplane traffic and by the National Security Agency to work on codes.

While GSA and OMB may disagree over the state of government computers, officials at both agencies recognize a need for more coordination so agencies don't buy incompatible hardware.

Congress recognized that need when it passed the Paperwork Reduction Act in 1980. It put GSA in charge of purchasing the government's automatic data processing and telecommunications equipment, and Commerce's National Bureau of Standards in charge of offering technical advice.

The act also created OMB's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs and required each agency to designate an official who would be responsible for information management, including computers.

While a congressional subcommittee criticized OMB's early efforts to implement the law, Wright says the administration's Reform '88 program, a six-year management initiative launched last year, should bring the government's computer network to state of the art performance.

Recently, GSA also created an Office of Software which, Carr said, is now trying to get all federal agencies to use compatible data.