Persuading skilled workers to join the federal civil service can be a tough sell.

More than half of the respondents in a national survey, to be released today by the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service, said they would not be interested in working for the federal government. Fifty-six percent explained their disdain by saying there was "too much bureaucracy" in the federal service. Nearly half (49 percent) could not come up with an answer when asked whether there was anything that federal workers -- other than members of the military -- do particularly well.

What is more, the federal government finished behind nonprofit organizations and the private sector when respondents were asked where a worker could do the most good and make a difference in people's lives, a traditional selling point for federal recruiters. Only 17 percent said federal service was that place, compared with 57 percent for nonprofit organizations and 20 percent for the private sector.

"People imagine working for the federal government as an exercise in frustration, hampered by red tape and surrounded by 'bureaucrats,' " the group's pollsters concluded in a 12-page summary.

The partnership, a nonprofit organization whose goal is to entice more talented people to work in the federal government, surveyed 600 probable voters about attitudes toward the federal government and federal employment. The poll, taken May 10-13, has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

Max Stier, the group's president, said the results illustrate the challenges agencies face in attracting top workers at a time when they are most needed. As much as half of the 1.8 million-strong federal civilian workforce will be eligible for early or regular retirement over the next few years. Still, Stier said he saw reasons for optimism.

For instance, the survey revealed that 62 percent of those surveyed nonetheless had a favorable opinion of the federal government, and 71 percent held a favorable view of its workers. Ninety-one percent said the work federal employees do is important to the average person in daily life. The survey also found that many people cited practical reasons to work in government, including good health insurance, job security and early retirement.

"The research demonstrates that there is a real opportunity for the federal government to reach out to a new generation of talent and interest them in government," said Stier, who added that any campaign should appeal to both altruism and practicality.

Scott Hatch, a spokesman for the Office of Personnel Management, declined to comment on the poll.

Stier said successful outreach will require major changes in how agencies operate and in how potential employees regard the government.

Officials must fix a federal application process plagued by complaints from job seekers that they must wait six months or longer to hear about their status, he said. The government also needs to continue personnel rule changes at the Department of Homeland Security and the Defense Department that proponents say will increase accountability and reward high performers, he said. Opponents, including major federal employee unions, say such changes are driving away prospective workers by undermining the civil service system and demoralizing employees.

Federal agencies also must do a better job of informing the public about what they do and the kinds of jobs that are available, Stier said.

The language used to describe government also matters. Only 20 percent of respondents had a favorable opinion of "federal government bureaucrats," while 71 percent had a positive view of "federal government workers."

Sharon Pinnock, director of membership for the American Federation of Government Employees, said rhetorical change must start at the top.

"The last two administrations have stepped in the door saying that they wanted to 'do away with government,' they want to 'downsize' government, they want to 'get government off the backs of the people,' " she said. "If this is what the highest elected official in the land is saying about government, it's going to make it pretty hard for agencies to counter that view."

Public service advocate Max Stier sees reason for optimism.