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Saving Grace, or how not to waste the taxpayers' money

J. Peter Grace can get very worked up when talking about government spending. He pounds his fist on the podium. He waves his hands about like a revivalist preacher. In a slightly raspy, penetrating voice he rails against examples of federal waste.

''Between 1976 and 1982, the government piled up $17 million in unused airplane tickets, for instance,'' says Mr. Grace, chairman of W.R. Grace & Co. and head of the President's Private Sector Survey on Cost Control. ''We've got to stop this kind of stuff. It's ridiculous.''

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So Grace and his fellow PPSSCC members have compiled a list of things they say can save Uncle Sam a lot of cash. To be precise, $340.8 billion, spread over three years.

''That's a pretty good day's work. That's what we're talking about, ladies and gentlemen,'' says Grace, shaking his finger at an audience of reporters. ''Real money.''

The sometimes-controversial PPSSCC, a panel of waste-hunters appointed a year ago by President Reagan, has just about finished its job. Cost-saving suggestions for all but a few, relatively minor areas of government have been made public.

But some of the suggestions the group have made so far are duplicates - so the final report to the President will likely contain a somewhat smaller bottom line than $340.8 billion, PPSSCC officials admit.

During its short life, the PPSSCC has managed to get itself in a fair bit of trouble. Congressmen have charged the group with violating the spirit of federal disclosure and conflict-of-interest laws. The PPSSCC, its critics say, has also gone beyond matters of government efficiency into policy questions that are none of its business.

Not all the suggestions are new. And implementing some of the cuts - like a proposed $15 billion reduction in the civil service retirement program - would be the political equivalent of attempting to barbeque dynamite.

But the PPSSCC's purpose is to provide a reference library of possible budget savings, not to weigh political practicality, says J.P. Balduc, the group's chief operating officer.

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In fact, says Mr. Balduc, some of the PPSSCC's earliest suggestions are already being implemented at the Departments of Commerce, Agriculture, Energy, and other agencies. The Treasury Department, for instance, is acting on the recommendation that it install an inhouse electronic mail system.

It's easy to focus on the most outrageous examples of waste turned up by the PPSSCC - such as the Bureau of Indian Affairs school that has so much extra money it is considering investing in a shopping mall.

But most of the group's suggestions are more prosaic. An analysis of the PPSSCC reports turns up certain constant themes:

* The government should improve its shopping habits. In many instances, the PPSSCC recommends that the federal government should sign more multiyear contracts, and should make sure the goods and services it needs to buy are available from more than one contractor. At the Air Force alone, these changes could save $5 billion by 1988, the Private Sector Survey estimates.

* The government should be more careful how it manages its money. The Pentagon, for instance, often pays its bills faster than it has to - wasting millions. By taking advantage of modern banking methods, and by not being so careless with his checkbook, Uncle Sam could save $25 billion in a three-year period.

* The government should collect what it is owed. In almost every corner of society, says the PPSSCC, there are deadbeats taking advantage of government laziness. Working through the backlog of tax court cases could reap over $3 billion, according to survey estimates.

* Government agencies could better manage information flow. Many of the data handling methods in the government, charges the PPSSCC, are hopelessly obsolete. Washington is the largest user of computer systems in the world - but half its computers are so old manufacturers no longer repair them.

* Uncle Sam should charge more for his services. Ten billion dollars, says the PPSSCC, could be raised through the oft-mentioned method of ''user fees.''

* Federal retirees should have less generous pensions. The Survey favors slashing $15 billion out of the civil service retirement system, and recommends another $15 billion trim in Air Force pensions, for instance.

* Government administration should be more centralized. A new Office of Federal Management should be created to take over administrative duties from the Office of Management and Budget, the General Accounting Office, the Office of Personnel Management, and other overlapping government agencies.

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