The Soviet Union's centrally planned economy is drowning in 800 billion -- yes, billion -- documents a year. That's more than 7,000 apiece for every factory and office worker in the nation, and the Kremlin's new leaders appear to be searching for ways to dry up the flood.
Senior officials who are seeking to streamline the troubled economy recently have publicized the overwhelming volume of paperwork pumped out by the vast Soviet bureaucracy. One article noted that 60 signatures are required before a company can start producing iron.
The figure of 800 billion documents -- provided by the National Institute on Documentation and Archives -- boggles the mind. It means that if all of the 114 million blue- and white-collar workers did nothing but write official documents, each would have to produce 28 official papers on each working day.
A senior Soviet economist, Alexei Rumyantsev, asserted in an article in the newspaper Trud that 90 percent of these documents are "useless" and contribute merely to making administration more cumbersome and inflexible.
"The huge volume of managerial activity is needed only for this or that organization but not for the economy as a whole," he said.
While the Soviet penchant for excessive administration is attacked by economists, members of the entrenched bureaucracy have been emphasizing the need for stricter controls over the economy.
Typical in this respect was an article by Deputy Procurator General C. A. Shishkov, also published in Trud, in which he spoke about the need for greater administrative and legal intervention against economic mismanagement.
The debate is a part of the new Kremlin leadership's search for economic adjustments that is due to be completed by next fall, when the Central Committee is expected to adopt a new economic program.
While arguments such as the one advanced by Shishkov contain standard Soviet appeals for greater efficiency and improved production, those advanced by advocates of structural changes include figures and concrete examples to demonstrate just how hopelessly inefficient they say the system is.
According to Rumyantsev, the flow of paper is generated by central planners in Moscow and augmented by local managers and experts. The latter, he said, spend 20 to 35 percent of their working hours shuffling useless papers and an equal amount of time attending conferences.
[Edwin Dale, spokesman for the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, which is charged with reducing the amount of government paperwork, said that in the United States it is measured in "burden hours" rather than the number of pages or documents. He said that when the Paperwork Reduction Act was signed at the end of 1980, federal forms imposed 1.5 billion hours of work on state and local governments, private businesses and individuals. The number of hours will be cut to "a little under 1.1 billion" by Oct. 1 of this year, Dale said. Sources in the General Accounting Office also said they had no figure for the number of documents that the government uses each year.]
An incalculable contribution to the Soviet system's ability to waste time is the need to write and sign various letters and other documents.
Foreigners in Moscow have long been aware of this because of the requirement that they write an official letter to get any service, no matter how trivial. The letter must be written on office stationery, stamped with an official seal, placed in an envelope and delivered by hand.
Newcomers quickly learn that they cannot hope to accomplish more than one task involving the bureaucracy in a day. Forget the envelope or, God forbid, the seal, and the letter is a worthless piece of paper that no Soviet bureaucrat would deign to read, let alone accept as a formal request.
What the recent articles showed is that the procedures are even more cumbersome in the national economy.
In the city of Donetsk, a major industrial center, each enterprise has been subjected to 129 official inspections in the course of one year, Trud reported.
An even more drastic example was advanced by Rumyantsev, who said that a machine-tool plant in Dnyepropetrovsk was investigated by 145 inspecting commissions in the course of 1980. He said that the commissions represented 38 different administrative bodies that spent a total of 615 working days to do the job.
There is a decree banning such unnecessary investigations but it is generally not heeded, because, as Rumyantsev said, "a decrease in the volume of managerial activity is not possible without a reduction of the management apparat and vice versa."
Rumyantsev approvingly quoted a Bolshevik minister of foreign trade in Lenin's government who said in 1923, "We are screaming about the evils of bureaucratization, but we do not notice the proliferation of offices and the personnel they employ. The latter is due largely to the fact that we have too many people who are engaged in inspecting, controls and study instead of going to factories and standing behind machines and working there."
What most economists including Rumyantsev are suggesting is a measure of decentralization of authority that would give enterprises and factories a greater degree of independence. Rumyantsev argued that in this way the state would improve economic efficiency of the enterprises.
Instead of bureaucratic controls, Rumyantsev urged "social controls, the development of socialist democracy whose essence is greater involvement of workers in management" of their factories.
This argument was supported by another economist, Leonid Abalkin, writing in the Communist Party newspaper Pravda. Complaining about an "excessive regimentation of economic activity," Abalkin said that this "not only diminishes real rights [of the workers] but also leads inevitably to the weakening of [their] responsibility."
Abalkin said that "it is particularly topical at this time to extend in real terms the independence and initiative" of enterprises. He said that the state should retain its controls over the economy but at the same time it should "develop democratic principles for managing production and all public business."