The federal bureaucracy continued to grow earlier this year despite the toughest crackdown on spending in more than a decade and at a time when many agencies were retrenching staff.

The Australian Public Service employed 168,580 people as of June 30, its largest workforce since 1988. Six months earlier, when the government foreshadowed steep cuts to the bureaucracy's budgets, the APS had 859 fewer staff.

Public Service Commissioner Stephen Sedgwick said the latest head count was a ''rear-view mirror'' only, suggesting the government workforce had since shrunk.

''There has been a lot of activity that agencies have taken to respond to the efficiency dividend measures, which are about preparing for next year, and they always have a tail.''

Mr Sedgwick's ''State of the Service Report'', tabled in Parliament on Thursday, also criticised the Business Council of Australia's recent call for a ''smaller public service''.

In September, the council's chief executive, Jennifer Westacott, demanded an audit and overhaul of the bureaucracy, with a view to cuts.

However, Mr Sedgwick said that, contrary to such commentary, ''the optimal size of the APS is difficult to establish a priori''.

He told Fairfax Media the number of employees depended on what work ministers wanted done and how they wanted it done. ''If the government has a high-touch approach to managing projects, then you'll have [more] people.

''If priorities are being reordered in favour of programs that are high touch, as opposed to ones where you just write a cheque and send it to the states, then you'll have a different outcome for people than if it's otherwise.''

Mr Sedgwick's report also hinted to the Labor government that it could not continue to increase the efficiency dividend - an annual cut to agency budgets - indefinitely.

More than half of the senior executive service said they had faced ''greatly increasing'' pressure on their workloads over the past three years due to the need to reallocate funds.

Mr Sedgwick said it had been ''many years since the APS has operated in such a constrained financial environment''.

''Recent decisions of government have increased the incentives agencies face to secure cost savings in their operations through increases in the efficiency dividend …

''More substantial changes to the scale and priorities of the APS, however, require clear decisions by government about which activities should be scaled back or eliminated.''

The latest ''State of the Service Report'' also draws attention to ''conundrums'' against which the public service has failed to make headway.

Mr Sedgwick said the inability of the APS to retain staff who were indigenous or who had a disability was a continuing concern, as were the relatively high rates of workplace absence.

He was also disappointed that fewer than half of employees believed their most recent performance review had helped them improve their work.

It was also unacceptable that one in six public servants felt they had been bullied in the past year, the commissioner said.

The latest snapshot of the APS shows that the typical public servant is a female university graduate, aged 42, employed as an APS6 officer. She earns about $82,000 a year.

The report also suggests the glass ceiling is slowly rising: women now make up 39.2 per cent of senior executives, 4.3 percentage points higher than five years ago.

The most sought-after staff are IT workers, accountants and human-resources professionals.