They're turning the institution over to the inmates, in a manner of speaking, at the Agriculture Department this week.

It's Idea Week at the USDA. And it is the brainchild of a bureaucrat rather than one of those political appointees supposedly skilled at implanting Republican management techniques on the bureaucracy.

So through Friday, by mail and by special toll-free telephone lines, Agriculture underlings are being asked to relay their ideas for making the USDA a better place to work, with less red tape and waste.

Susan Hess of the department's Office of Management Reform said between 6,000 and 10,000 ideas are expected to flood in from USDA offices all over the country. A task force will sort through them, pick out the best and try to have them implemented, as they say.

"We're looking at ways to cut paper work and to save money and also to take care of some of the employe frustrations," Hess said. "We have no idea what we'll get in the way of responses, but we've already received between 60 and 70 . . . "

Some of the early entries suggest new ways of training employes to use agency computers. Another suggested setting up a small room where people could take surplus office supplies so that other offices that needed them could use them.

"Now, there are two ways you can deal with excess supplies," Hess said. "You can surplus them or you throw them out. We've found that some people feel it is easier to throw them out."

The department's search for money-saving techniques includes Idea Week itself. Unlike the regular suggestion-box program, which drew about 1,700 proposals last year, this one will offer no cash incentives for the best ideas.

Idea Week is an outgrowth of a larger program authorized by Secretary John R. Block to get agency employes thinking about and making suggestions for improving the "quality of worklife," in Hess' words. Some of the early proposals have been approved by Block and assigned to officials to carry out.

Hess said her office's surveys have shown that the biggest employe concerns are the complexity of forms and reports, automation and data processing and worker safety and health.

"Some people feel their ideas about improvements are not forwarded through the system," she added. That led to the declaration of a time whose idea has come.