Citing a "quiet crisis" in the quality, efficiency and leadership of the civil service, former Federal Reserve Board chairman Paul A. Volcker yesterday launched the National Commission on the Public Service to build respect for public careers.

"I wouldn't be here if I didn't have some concern" over a significant decline in the civil service -- even within the Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department, two of the government's premier agencies. "The staff is still of very high quality," Volcker said, but "the depth of really talented staff may be less than it was 20 years ago."

"If I can say that about the Federal Reserve," which as a quasi-independent agency can pay more and is free from some federal personnel constraints, the situation is probably more serious elsewhere, Volcker said.

The commission, which includes Derek Bok, president of Harvard University; Robert S. McNamara, former defense secretary and World Bank president; Elliot L. Richardson, who has held four Cabinet posts; former vice president Walter F. Mondale; retired general and former NATO commander Andrew Goodpaster and other prominent Americans, will study the career civil service, make recommendations and attempt to generate support for a revitalization of the bureaucracy.

"It is not a coincidence" that the commission plans a two-year effort -- culminating in the arrival of a new administration, Volcker said. The group will seek the ear of presidential candidates and try to get its objectives included in the platforms of both major political parties.

"Our effort is entirely independent of the question of the size of the government," Volcker said. "The government is still spending 23 percent of GNP," and it must be done "effectively and efficiently."

"There should be no controversy about whether federal inspection of planes is done properly, about whether the people who oversee atomic energy are competent to prevent a meltdown, about whether the people who draw maps at the Geological Survey get the job done right," he said.

Contributing to the "quiet crisis," Volcker said, are:

Washington bashing going "even beyond our traditional compulsions of that kind."

Temporary political appointments deeper in the ranks of the bureaucracy.

The deliberate exclusion of career personnel from policy discussions.

Inadequate executive training and development.

A growing disparity between federal pay levels -- especially at senior levels -- and those in the private sector.

The low priority given by young people to government service.

Volcker declined to speculate on what the commission will recommend on pay, but he believes that to attract and retain the best people, senior government salaries must be brought closer in line with industry.

Although the Federal Reserve Board is not technically bound by government pay caps, Volcker kept salaries at the Fed in line with those of civil service jobs. In his last weeks as chairman, he was earning at a yearly rate of roughly $90,000. The Wall Street Journal has calculated that Volcker could earn $5.6 million annually in the private sector.

The executive director of the commission, which has offices on H Street, is L. Bruce Laingen, a career Foreign Service officer who was held hostage in Iran for 444 days.

The commission is a private, nonprofit organization with a budget of $500,000 to $600,000 for two years. Its funds have come from the Sloan Foundation, the McKnight Foundation and the Hewlett Foundation, Laingen said.

The commission is one of a growing number of organizations worried about civil service problems. Volcker said he wants to work with them all. "We do not pretend to be the group that has suddenly seen the light" on this issue, he said.