Despite recent laws designed to protect "whistle blowers," many federal workers still fear that they will be punished if they expose government waste and fraud, according to a new survey.

The Merit Systems Protection Board's survey found that in 1983, 69 percent of workers who said they knew firsthand of some example of government waste failed to report it. That was roughly the same number found in a similar survey in 1980.

The most common reason cited was workers' belief that nothing would be done about it, with fear of reprisal running a close second.

"No measurable progress has been made in overcoming federal employe resistance to the idea that they should report instances of fraud, waste and abuse," the report said.

About 23 percent of the workers who said they publicly reported a case of fraud said they had suffered reprisals in the form of a demotion, a poor performance rating or losing out on a promotion.

Most of those who said they had reported waste said they did so anonymously.

The findings of the survey, released this week, appear to fly in the face of one of the stated goals of the 1978 Civil Service Reform Act, which was to encourage employes to expose waste and mismanagement in the bureaucracy.

"Whistle-blower protections, by themselves, have not met all the stated expectations of Congress," the report concluded.

"I think many federal employes don't think they have anyone to go to," said Sandra Arnold, director of public relations for the National Federation of Federal Employes.

"They look around and read the papers and see what happens to people who have done whistle blowing," she said.

"If you don't have confidence that your protections are going to be there when you need them, what good are they?" she added. "With all the lip service being given to people about trying to cut back on waste, then to read in the papers what really happens to people who step forward, is not very encouraging."

Longtime Pentagon whistle blower A. Ernest Fitzgerald, said the findings "seem sound to me. You can get away with reporting minor instances of waste, especially if they don't threaten corporate interests. You can report on your fellow bureaucrats coming back from lunch an hour late, but if you complain about something really heavy, you have a problem."

The survey polled 7,563 randomly selected federal workers by mail and had a 64.7 percent response rate. The results were slightly weighted toward higher-level civil servants.

The report suggested that the problem cannot be addressed on a government-wide basis and recommended that individual agency heads take the initiative to encourage employes to report waste.

Agency heads must create an "organizational climate" that makes reporting waste and fraud "the norm, rather than the exception," it said.