After a couple of rounds of closed-door debate, senior Clinton administration officials have decided to turn the problem of what to do with office deadwood over to an interagency group of personnel specialists and see what they recommend.

The decision was made at a recent meeting of the President's Management Council, a secretive group of senior political appointees in charge of the government's day-to-day operations. The council grew out of Vice President Gore's "reinventing government" project and frequently takes up issues that reflect his interests.

Gore's senior staff, citing federal employee surveys, thinks the problem of "poor performers" needs to be addressed to improve workplace morale, promote accountability and underscore the importance of goal-oriented performance.

One official said council members offered a range of ideas, including one that advocated grading civil servants on a bell curve so that a certain percentage at the low end would automatically face dismissal each year. Another said he would prefer to tackle the issue of underachieving workers and how agencies could provide incentives to improve performance.

But, given the administration's relatively short time left in office, the council decided to let the personnel experts wrestle with the problem one more time.

For years, the perception of the government as a bastion of poor- or low-performing people has influenced nearly every debate or scheme aimed at overhauling the civil service. But an Office of Personnel Management study earlier this year suggested that there's a lot less deadwood in the bureaucracy than most people think.

The study estimated that only 3.7 percent of the government's work force could be considered poor performers. Still, depending on whether part-time and seasonal workers are counted when measuring civil service employment, the number of poor performers could range from about 54,000 to 67,000.

While that's a lot of people causing aggravation, the OPM study also underscored a long-standing complaint by federal supervisors--too much energy goes into dealing with poor performers and the effort rarely wins the support of upper management.

Budget Deal Delays a Payday

The budget deal approved by Congress, in what one administration official called a "transparent gimmick," would delay payroll checks by a day for some government workers.

Under the agreement, if federal employees work for an agency that has set a payday for the 29th or 30th of September 2000, those workers would receive paychecks at 12:01 a.m. on Oct. 1, the start of the next fiscal year.

Another provision would delay the payday for members of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force if they are scheduled to be paid on Sept. 30, 2000.

Officials said they had not determined how many workers would be affected by the provision but expect it would save more than $3 billion in fiscal 2000. Lobbyists for the major federal unions expressed concern that the maneuver could impose a hardship on some workers because Oct. 1 falls on a Sunday, when banks are closed.

Customs Pay Hike

The massive spending bill provides a $7,500 boost in pay for the commissioner of the U.S. Customs Service, to $125,900.

The pay raise will mean that the salary of the Customs commissioner is no longer lower than other law enforcement bureau heads at the Treasury Department.

Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) and others argued that Customs is not a minor agency because it operates with a budget of about $2 billion and has a staff of more than 19,000 employees across the nation.

Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly will undoubtedly appreciate the raise. He took a pay cut last year to head the agency after serving a stint as a treasury undersecretary.

Joining Forces Against Fraud

In another sign that the government views public-private partnerships as effective ways to get out messages to the public, a new coalition kicked off a consumer education initiative last week aimed at thwarting illegal telemarketing operations. Officials said such schemes con Americans out of $40 billion annually.

The "Know Fraud" group includes the U.S. Postal Service, the Justice Department, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Federal Trade Commission, the Council of Better Business Bureaus and AARP.

Postmaster General William J. Henderson announced that the nation's households will receive a postcard containing tips to detect illegal schemes. In an innovative twist, Chief Postal Inspector Kenneth C. Weaver said the program will be financed with money recouped from a 1994 mail fraud case.