Between 29 percent and 50 percent of long distance phone calls made by federal employes at five agencies were for personal rather than business reasons, according to preliminary results of a government-wide survey.

"It is higher than it should be and higher than it will be," said R.T. Rollis Jr., assistant to the administrator for management at the Agency for International Development, one of 17 executive branch agencies investigating employe calls.

"We knew there was a problem, but we were surprised it was that bad," said Office of Management and Budget Deputy Director Joseph R. Wright Jr., head of the President's Council on Integrity and Efficiency, which initiated the study.

The government began checking federal employes' calls by computer last year in an effort to reduce phone system abuse.

The five agencies that have completed audits found extensive unofficial use of government phones, and their findings are expected to be in line with the rest of the government. The Office of Personnel Management found 36.5 percent of its calls were unofficial; the Department of Housing and Urban Development, 29 percent; the Department of Energy, 30 percent; the Agency for International Development, 50 percent, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 43.1 percent.

Calls were researched by dialing the number and seeing who answered, according to the agencies. "There was no monitoring or listening-in at all," Wright said. The nature of some calls could not be determined.

The question of whether telephone misuse is more prevalent in government than that in private industry is controversial. The "personal use rate in normal companies is about 5 percent," said Harry Newton, a telecommunications consultant and publisher of Teleconnect Magazine, a trade publication.

"The government figures don't surprise me at all," he said. "A lot of employes think FTS Federal Telecommunications System calls are free. Some of them are not that busy, and they can't eat a sandwich or read a book at their desk, so they use the phone."

However, William E. Darden III, who is director of corporate telecommunications for a national aerospace firm and has extensive experience in the field, said the 5 percent figure "seems a bit low. This is true perhaps for very authoritarian companies with well-managed telecommunications departments," he said, "but typically unofficial use runs between 30 and 50 percent in the private sector."

Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) said she does not find the government figures "particularly shocking."

"I see it as a management problem," she said. "If somebody calls and says 'I'll be home late because I have to work,' that's one thing. If somebody is chewing the fat with his neighbor, that's another. Managers ought to have people keep track of their personal and not work-pushed calls and bill people for them like my husband's law firm does."

The Office of Personnel Management, like the other 16 executive branch agencies involved in the review, checked more than 200 calls from a computer printout. The majority of "problem" calls were to spouses, parents or children located in suburban Washington -- areas such as Dale City or Severna Park -- or throughout the country.

The agency has collected $12,000 for the calls and is billing employes for another $3,000.

HUD reported that personal "inter-city" calls from its Washington headquarters cost the government an estimated $72,587, and the figure "does not include a projected loss of 3,400 hours of staff time."

When HUD checked "potentially abusive calls," such as long, frequent, or recorded message calls, it found that 47 percent of them were unofficial and included calls to horoscopes, sports scores, jokes and adult entertainment.

Other problems included 14 "third party" calls made by the child of a headquarters employe to an acquaintance in New Jersey.

It is illegal to make personal long distance calls on government phones. Employes may be fined, suspended or dismissed for the offense, but the government rarely tries to collect when it discovers personal usage.

A 1984 survey conducted for the Agency for International Development showed that "approximately 50 percent of its sample of telephone calls were for personal reasons." The survey is considered by AID to be outdated.

Since the survey was conducted, AID has issued frequent admonitions to its employes to curb abuse. As a result, its estimated phone bill for this year has dropped from an expected $1.6 million to about $900,000. AID has not conducted a recent study to see whether the savings is a result of fewer personal calls.

NASA reported that 43.1 percent of FTS calls to destinations other than government offices were unofficial. In interviews, NASA employes said they were not aware of NASA's policy against personal use, felt justified in calling home if they had to work late, or "knew it was not right but everybody used FTS for personal reasons."

Wright said the complete survey is expected in August, but added that he thinks the figures are outdated. "Just by announcing it, phone usage went down substantially."