Civil service pay has become the greatest obstacle to recruiting and retaining highly qualified managers in the government, according to a survey of senior federal executives scheduled for release Wednesday.

Inadequate salaries created a significant barrier to recruiting top-notch leaders, according to 46 percent of the federal executives in the poll, while 49 percent said pay problems made it difficult to retain talented managers.

More than 80 percent of the federal executives surveyed said they have considered leaving the government, with half citing pay as their top reason. The survey, conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers Endowment for the Business of Government, provides yet another indicator that numerous federal employees believe the government's pay system is broken and in need of reform.

The survey was based on telephone interviews with 347 federal executives drawn randomly from a list of 5,600 members of the Senior Executive Service (SES), the government's cadre of elite managers. The respondents came from 43 federal agencies across the country.

In recent years, Congress has been reluctant to regularly raise its own pay, resulting in caps on the salaries of SES members and a variety of other federal officials.

Under current law, the top pay rates for federal executives cannot exceed the pay given assistant secretaries at Cabinet departments and the heads of small agencies. As a result, the top three levels of the SES in the Washington-Baltimore region are now being paid the same amount: $125,900 annually. Starting SES pay in the region begins at $110,351.

But Congress has allowed exceptions at some agencies, recognizing they need to be competitive with the private sector. That has created a patchwork of special pay authorities that reward some officials while leaving others behind.

Congress, for example, allows the Internal Revenue Service to pay its top technology official $175,400, the same salary the vice president gets. About 160 scientists at the National Institutes of Health are paid $151,800, the same as Cabinet secretaries and more than federal appeals and district court judges.

In their responses to the survey, 72 percent said offering top government officials salaries comparable to the private sector would help recruit and retain executives, but only 5 percent said they thought the government would opt for such a dramatic change.

Unlike private-sector companies, which strive to apply "best practices" to solve business problems, the government operates with a "worst practice" compensation system, Ian Littman, co-chairman of the PricewaterhouseCoopers Endowment, said in a written statement accompanying the report on the survey.

In the federal system, Littman said, "executive compensation is severely compressed and capped, and one that provides few incentives for performance."

The Clinton administration has started looking at ways to overhaul federal pay by 2002. The Office of Personnel Management is examining several short-term alternatives, such as allowing SES pay and bonuses to go as high as the vice president's salary. Currently, SES pay and bonuses cannot exceed that of a Cabinet secretary.

While some experts think chances for wide-scale pay reform remain bleak, others note that the Republican Congress has provided some hope with its proposal to double the next president's pay from $200,000 to $400,000. That could make it politically easier to lift the caps that apply to a range of executive and congressional branch officials.

PricewaterhouseCoopers shared its survey findings with OPM, and agency director Janice R. Lachance called the data "a big help" that would be used "in formulating policy and in looking at the future about what we can do to attract and retain the kind of talent that taxpayers deserve."

The survey also found that a majority of senior executives no longer view technical expertise as the overriding key to successful government careers. The survey report said respondents listed attributes similar to those recently developed by OPM as "core qualifications" for SES jobs.

For example, 72 percent ranked "adaptability/flexibility with change" as highly important; 64 percent said they valued "vision and strategic thinking"; 69 percent saw "accountability" as very important; and 58 percent favored business practices reflecting a "customer orientation."

Keeping Leaders

Here are career and political executives' suggested solutions for recruiting and retaining career government leaders and their opinions on the likelihood that the solutions will be adopted.

Rate Think

solution as government will

very helpful adopt the solution

Solution

Offer salaries/compensation 72% 5%

comparable to private sector

Create a more flexible salary/ 52% 24%

compensation scale

Modify the performance 35% 55%

review system

Make it easier to leave and 27% 25%

then return to government

Further develop staff through 24% 78%

training and the candidate

development program

Improve recruiting/marketing 20% 56%

Encourage movement 17% 50%

of staff between agencies

Recruit more leaders from 14% 44%

outside government

SOURCE: PricewaterhouseCoopers