Two Agriculture Department projects to develop new computer systems to monitor U.S. grain and dairy inventories have gone 780 percent over budget in seven years, a General Accounting Office study says.

In a critical report prepared for the House subcommittee on government information, justice and agriculture, the GAO cited "poor initial estimates, ill-defined user requirements" and "an ambiguous systems concept design" among the reasons why the cost of the projects rose from $7 million to $61.9 million.

"This has the potential to be another Hubble Telescope," said Rep. Robert E. Wise Jr. (D-W.Va.), the subcommittee chairman. "It's not as if they didn't know. The IG {Agriculture Department inspector general} issued three reports, and the department didn't respond. There's enough blame to go around on this one."

Wise has planned hearings for today to investigate cost overruns and delays in the two projects, the Grain Inventory Management System and the Processed Commodity Inventory Management System. The two systems are used to monitor millions of tons of stockpiled grain and dairy products held at warehouses throughout the country.

The department's Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service in 1983 let a $7 million contract to Andersen Consultants of Chicago to develop the new computer systems.

The department's first mistake, GAO said, was that it "significantly underestimated the size of the system it needed," in part because the department was "not involving key users in defining requirements." GAO said department employees did not bother to participate in planning because they believed the projects would never be completed.

The report also criticized the department for "failure to thoroughly review the contractor's system design document before approving and accepting it." As a result, the report continued, the department was stuck with "an ambiguous design that could only be corrected by additional system changes."

Later decisions to stop part of the project, then restart it, also added to the cost, the GAO said, as did a lack of "clear and consistent direction" from the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service. The report said the office responsible for overseeing the project changed its leadership six times between 1983 and 1990.