Nearly half of the members of the SES say they probably will leave government within the next couple of years, according to a poll taken by the Merit Systems Protection Board. The MSPB, set up as a whistle-blower protection unit, sent confidential questionnaires to 1,000 SES members and says responses indictate many are not happy with the elite corps, and feel Congress has not lived up to its promises of substantial bonuses and better pay.

According to the MSPB, 25 percent of the executives surveyed said they expect to leave within the next two years, and another 20 percent said there is an even chance they will quit by 1983. The figure isn't necessarily as startling as it seems, since many top federal career officials have been threatening to quit for years and many already are at or beyond retirement age. t

Nevertheless, the MSPB study does indicate that many of the career executives are unhappy with the SES, their own careers or their bosses. Eight out of 10 of the $50,000-plus executives said there were "insufficient incentives" within the SES to keep the best people. One in 10 said they were seriously considering dropping back to to Grade 15 where the pay is the same, the security is better and the responsibility is less.

If the survey data are correct, pay and bonuses will have to be improved or else the administration will be faced with a mass exodous of top-level career bureaucrats. Next question: Does that prospect frighten, or delight, the administration?