The National Security Council is tops. The Bureau of Indian Affairs is at the bottom of the federal agency barrel.

So finds a recent survey of former government executives, all members of the Washington-based Council for Excellence in Government, who were asked to rate federal agencies on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the strongest.

The 250 members who returned the survey, which was conducted for a Fortune magazine issue that appears this week, span the political spectrum and are former employees of a wide range of federal departments and agencies, said council president Mark Abramson.

Members were asked to rank agencies and offices within departments on four criteria: the quality of the management; the quality of the work force; the quality of service, and return on the tax dollar.

Their responses, said Abramson, are "based on their experience in government." For those with no direct involvement in the agencies rated, "it is their perception" of how well a certain office does its job that counts.

Abramson said the common features among the offices that rated in the top 10 were that they are older, more established agencies for which a political consensus exists about their mission. Further, these offices are generally highly visible, there is a degree of stability within the leadership and top-quality political appointees often are assigned to these agencies.

On the contrary, the 10 agencies that scored the lowest on the survey tended to be newer organizations whose mission was less clear and for whom a national political consensus about their worth is missing. The lack of such a consensus means they are vulnerable to funding cuts, Abramson said. Cuts, in turn, may make it harder for these agencies to attract and retain quality employees.