The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission fails to monitor basic job discrimination trends among federal workers, and what data it collects are often flawed, according to a recent General Accounting Office report.

While federal workers lodged 28,947 discrimination complaints in 1997, the agency cannot say how many individuals were involved, whether bias was based on race, sex, religion or other factors, or what actions triggered the allegations, the GAO said.

Investigators also found that the Postal Service, the source of half of the federal complaints, mistakenly reported that 10,040 of 14,326 complaints in 1997, or 70 percent, were filed by white postal workers. The actual number was 1,654, or 12 percent.

"EEOC does not collect and report data . . . in a way that would help answer some fundamental questions about the nature and extent of workplace conflicts," the GAO said in its report, requested by Reps. Elijah E. Cummings and Albert R. Wynn, both Maryland Democrats.

"The reliability of the data that EEOC collects from agencies and reports is questionable," reported the GAO, the congressional watchdog.

EEOC Chairwoman Ida L. Castro said the agency is responding to reporting flaws, but improvements would not be seen until fall 2001 because eight months would be needed to issue new regulations and one fiscal year to collect new data.

"EEOC agrees that the data collected from federal agencies could be more comprehensive and accurate," Castro replied to the report, which was sent to lawmakers in May and made public last week. "At the same time, we believe each agency bears the major responsibility to ensure the accuracy of its data."

Castro, who took office seven months ago to clean up the neglected agency, said new funds requested for 2000 to deal with a surging caseload could help pay for on-site reviews to address workplace disputes, data reliability problems and EEOC program weaknesses among federal agencies.

The backlog of unresolved discrimination complaints at federal agencies doubled between 1991 and 1997 to 34,267, while hearing requests tripled to 10,016 and appeals before the EEOC grew fivefold, to 9,980.

Postal Service officials blamed its race-based complaint errors in both 1996 and 1997 on a computer programming flaw and staff restructuring. Because of its high volume of complaints, the Postal Service was the only agency reviewed by the GAO for the accuracy of its reports.

About 320,000 of the 2.7 million federal workers live in the greater Washington area. The two Maryland lawmakers joined last week with the NAACP, Blacks in Government and other federal worker groups to highlight the problems. Officials of the groups called for the Clinton administration to set up a citizen review panel and said "corrupted data" are compromising workers' legal protection against bias.

"Why are so many people being denied promotion? Why are so many people being passed over? We can't answer these questions because the data collection is so flawed," said Wynn, a deputy Democratic whip and liaison to the Congressional Black Caucus.

Gerald R. Reed, president of the employee association Blacks in Government, added, "The GAO report gives considerable credence to the allegation made by many federal employees that the EEOC lacks the integrity to protect their constitutional and civil rights."

CAPTION: EEOC Chairwoman Ida L. Castro, recognizing data reliability problems, said that information collected from federal agencies could be more complete. She said new funds for 2000 would help the EEOC better handle its problems.