Richard O. Haase is the government's chief builder and leasing agent, head gardener and chief janitor. If the federal government owns it, his job is to protect it, and if something's broken, his job is to fix it.

The General Services Administration official is a self-made businessman who submitted his resume when the Reagan administration took office because he said he yearned to serve the public at least once in his career.

In early 1981, Haase recalled, "I was called one day for an interview at the White House personnel office and the woman said, 'We'd like you to be public building commissioner.' I said, 'What's that?' and 'No, thank you,' in almost the same breath. I never heard of the job before."

But after she showed him the job description in the U.S. Government Manual, Haase quickly changed his mind.

"It was exactly what someone with my background would fit into perfectly in government," he said. "I think I was hired because I wanted to bring the innovations of the private sector to government."

After graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1958, Haase served in the Air Force, then became a real estate agent and later a professional appraiser operating his own company.

His political connections don't appear strong. He said he donated "small sums of money" to GOP candidates in the past and appraised the Republican National Committee headquarters building on Capitol Hill (earning, he said, $750 for the job).

At GSA, he quickly developed an oil-and-water relationship with his new boss, Gerald P. Carmen.

"We're different in that he's a politically sensitive, street-smart kind of guy and I was coming in with the expert background," Haase said of Carmen.

Carmen said of Haase: "He'll say anything. I envy him sometimes. I want to be like Dick because he's so carefree. He just plunges right in with what he thinks is right and does it."

They've turned out to be a good team because Carmen tries to hire good people and then lets them do their job, while retaining the right to meddle whenever the fancy, or the need, strikes him.

Haase's job is comparable to managing a company on the Fortune 500 list. The Public Buildings Service has total assets of $11 billion, including $8.9 billion worth of federal buildings. With nearly 15,000 employes, it's the biggest part of GSA.

"The job," Haase said, "is partially managing a major corporation and getting it to adopt good business practices"--including new computer systems to track leases and maintenance plans and efforts to cut red tape. The changes, he said, were not pushed from on high; "they were logical things to do."

Haase said the main goal has been to lease less office space and instead buy buildings at attractive prices or construct new ones that are not ostentatiously designed.

When he asked the Office of Management and Budget for money to buy buildings, Haase said, the White House offered to put line items into the budget for specific buildings.

"I said, 'No, just give me the money and let's not tip our hand to a buyer and have him shoot the price up.' " Now the first purchase has been completed: a $7 million office building in downtown Dallas.

But because President Reagan is trying to shrink the size of the government, Haase also has the unenviable task of trying to cut federal office space. This week, GSA issued regulations intended to reduce the office space of most office-bound federal workers by 10 percent over the next two years.

"This is a revolutionary concept," Haase said. "It's a job that takes discipline in the ranks and throughout the management of the many federal agencies. It's not going to happen overnight, but it has the potential to save millions and millions of dollars in leasing costs."

There lies another critical problem. Haase has installed a state-of-the-art computer system (called SMARTS) as he tries to shorten the time it takes to prepare new leases.

"I remember Carmen looking at a statistic that showed it took 365 days to write a new lease, on average, and asking me early on: 'Dick, in the private sector, how long does it take to negotiate and draw up a lease?' " Haase recalled. "I told him one day."

Although the federal government will never achieve that, Haase said, it should be possible to cut the time lag in half. Already, it has been cut to 200 days.

"We want to do things here which will last as good management practices," Haase said. "Policies that blow with the administration are worthless."