The federal government, often criticized for poor services, has scored nearly as high as private sector companies in a survey of "customer satisfaction."

The first-ever government-wide survey, scheduled for release today, gave Uncle Sam a score of 68.6, just below the comparable private sector rating of 72.

The survey showed "customers" gave the highest scores to federal agencies that provide a direct public service or benefits, while the lowest scores were given to government regulators, who write rules, levy fines and enforce laws.

The results also suggested that some government agencies still have a way to go if they are to meet Information Age expectations. Agencies that tested reactions to their Internet sites did not score exceptionally high, apparently because the people surveyed found it difficult to click through the Web pages and find the information they wanted.

The survey was sponsored by the global accounting and consulting firm Arthur Andersen, the University of Michigan Business School and the American Society for Quality. The survey sponsors used a computer model--the American Customer Satisfaction Index--to rank the agencies. The index, started in 1994, has been used to gauge customer satisfaction for goods and services provided by companies in a range of industries, from beer to cars to computers and telecommunications.

Twenty-nine federal agencies, providing more than 80 percent of the government's services to the public, participated at the direction of Vice President Gore's task force on "reinventing government." Sources close to Gore's reinvention team made available a copy of the survey results. [Chart, Page A23.]

The Head Start program for low-income children and the government's main nutrition program for women, infants and children received the highest marks. These programs were closely followed by federal agencies that provide retirement and health care benefits, such as Social Security, Medicare, veterans compensation and federal employee pensions.

The lowest rankings went to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which enforces job safety rules, and the Internal Revenue Service, which collects taxes.

But the survey results even encouraged the IRS, historically one of the government's most dread bureaucracies. The average IRS score of 51 was 23 points higher among individuals and tax practitioners who filed electronically through their computers and by telephone. In this case, technology seemed to improve taxpayer perceptions, perhaps because electronic filing cuts by half the time it takes the IRS to provide a refund.

The results will likely attract congressional interest, because the survey data provide a snapshot of how the public views federal services. The results also should prove encouraging to Gore, who has pushed federal agencies to improve "customer service" and take advantage of private sector management practices.

"It is an opportunity for us to improve America's trust in its government . . . in a way that reflects the voices of our citizens," said Gore adviser Morley A. Winograd.

Public policy experts said it was important for the government to help conduct such a survey but cautioned against drawing too many conclusions, because each federal agency selected only one set of its "customers" for interviews. Only parents of current Head Start students were interviewed, for example, not other "customers" of the program such as first-grade teachers who instruct Head Start graduates.

"It's good for government whenever possible to look outside for feedback," said Paul C. Light, director of governmental studies at the Brookings Institution. "As long as you don't over-interpret it," he added.

Donald F. Kettl, a University of Wisconsin professor who also has studied government reform efforts, said, "The government ought to make it easier for citizens to do business with it. The government has a choice in how it structures relationships with citizens, and other things being equal, these relationships ought to be the easy way, not the hard way."

The ratings were calculated according to a model devised by the index's sponsors and assigned a ranking on an arbitrary scale. The scale ranges from 1 to 100 and takes into account two major factors--customer expectations and "perceived quality" of the services. The survey found customers approach the government with lower expectations than they do private sector companies.

The sources who provided a copy of the survey results cautioned that the numbers should not be seen as a popularity contest reflecting percentages of people satisfied with a federal service. Because agencies chose the "customer segments" they wanted to survey, the index also does not reflect the public's overall satisfaction with an agency's performance.

But surveying only parents of current Head Start students, the Health and Human Services Department chose customers who are not only familiar with how the program treats their children but in many cases receive counseling services from the program and may receive job search assistance. About 30 percent of the staff at local Head Start programs are parents whose children went through the program, the sources said.

The Federal Aviation Administration, by contrast, surveyed people it regulates--commercial pilots--and encountered some turbulence. In the index, FAA scored 29 points below Head Start.

FAA got its low mark, 58, because of complaints about the clarity of its regulations. As a result, FAA officials plan to stress "plain English" writing and clear communication with all of its customers, the sources said.

The government paid about $750,000 to collect data for the survey, which will be repeated next year, according to sources.