Federal employees typically don't see evidence of drug abuse in their agencies, don't care one way or another about Hatch Act restrictions on their political activity, and believe job applicants are not up to the quality of those retiring from the civil service.

A scientifically selected sample of 15,939 federal workers also found that, overall, government employees (70 percent) are satisfied with their jobs and 9 out of 10 workers say they find the work they do meaningful.

The survey released by the Merit Systems Protection Board yesterday follows influential reports, including that of the National Commission on the Public Service headed by former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker, portraying a "quiet crisis" in the quality of the civil service. It provides fresh evidence that federal workers see an accelerating decline in the quality of the young people coming into their agencies.

An unidentified senior executive wrote: "The problem of attracting quality professionals is not limited to scientists. I am a lawyer. There are plenty of OK candidates for legal positions but the quality of the hiring pool has declined enormously. The finest law schools, once our primary source, are essentially closed to the government."

A senior manager said: "The quality of clerical applicants continues to be bad and the quality of professional applicants has worsened. . . . "

Added another senior executive: "Government service will ultimately be staffed by marginal individuals unable to secure employment in the private sector. We are already seeing this. Competent executives are leaving government and being replaced by very mediocre people."

Between 41 and 61 percent of all supervisors said the quality of the applicants for government jobs has worsened in the past four years. This finding is particularly notable because four years ago, when the last survey was released, many of the supervisors already perceived a decline.

The Merit Systems Protection Board -- a small agency charged with overseeing the government's personnel practices -- said that its report showed "the crux of the 'quiet crisis' -- a work force that appears to be slowly declining in quality at a time when the demands being made on it are increasing."

One in four federal workers thinks that both the quantity and quality of work done in their offices could be increased even "if the people in your work group stayed the same."

The huge survey, conducted every three years by the board, also found:

About 12 percent of government workers believe there is a drug abuse problem in their office or workplace "to some extent" or greater.

About 23 percent of Navy civilian employees reported a "drug abuse problem" in their workplace, while only 5 percent of employees in the Justice Department, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the Small Business Administration reported a similiar perception.

Blue-collar employees who believe the government may harbor some drug abusers far outnumber white-collar workers.

About 32 percent of federal workers wanted more freedom to engage in political activity, about 27 percent don't and 41 percent don't care.

Less than half of federal workers would recommend the federal government as an employer, and 28 percent would not. In general, the higher the rank of the civil servant, the more negative he or she is about choosing a career with Uncle Sam.