The ranks of middle managers in the public service are again growing, despite job losses and Labor and Coalition campaigns to thin the bureaucracy's executive levels.
The Gillard and Abbott governments both targeted EL1 and EL2 staff in response to concerns that "classification creep" had left many managers in charge of too few staff.
But the cohort has again begun to grow as a proportion of the workforce, the Australian Public Service Commission's latest snapshot of the bureaucracy shows.
Meanwhile, the number of graduates joining the public service in 2018 fell to the lowest level in 13 years but the number of graduates taken on by the largest departments in Canberra appears to have remained steady.
Tony Shepherd, who led the Abbott government's audit commission in 2014, said it was important to have an efficient management level.
He said public service managers should be paid more, but there should be fewer of them.
"Our [the audit's] preliminary view was that the span of control of executives in the public service tended to be much smaller than in the private sector," he said.
"An executive in the private sector might have seven or eight people reporting to them. And we found cases of public sector executives having one person reporting to them."
Mr Shepherd said the bureaucracy should integrate across departments and increase efficiency by ensuring ELs had more staff to manage.
The Australian Public Service was falling behind civil services in other Western democracies that better encouraged staff to move between the private and public sectors, he said.
He also said promotions were used inappropriately to retain staff.
"It's a way of retaining public servants by giving them more money, promoting them, just to give them a bigger salary, even if the position doesn't really require someone at that level or as many people at that level," he said.
Mr Shepherd said any review should consider increasing pay for EL staff but decreasing their numbers, to increase the APS's competitiveness with the private sector.
Hays Specialist Recruiting's director of public sector recruitment, Kathy Kostyrko, said the APS needed to work hard to attract specialists because it often paid relatively poorly.
She said this could explain recent classification creep - making jobs a higher level than they should be so as to access higher salaries.
Ms Kostyrko said the government recruited ELs to plug specialist knowledge gaps, bringing experts in to build the existing workforce's skills.
"As technology is moving so quickly, often it's very difficult to upskill your own staff on what's required," she said.
"What we're finding is that many of our clients are needing to get skills in quickly so that they can actually develop the products and services that they need to."
UNSW Canberra academic Samantha Johnson, who researched public servants' commitment to their jobs, said the APS should look at the nature of jobs it needed to fill, rather than simply the classification.
She said it would be better to bring people in to project-based work rather than employing them at particular levels, offering career paths that didn't just go up.
Dr Johnson said employees sometimes became committed to their departments because it was easier to stay than to leave, and not because they enjoyed the work.
Higher mobility between departments and a common pay scale across departments would help, she said.
"People join the public service and they get locked in to thinking that career and success is about promotion to the next level rather than career and success looking like diversity and opportunity across a range of different government departments," she said.
As technology is moving so quickly, often it's very difficult to upskill your own staff on what's required.Kathy Kostyrko, public sector recruitment director at Hays Specialist Recruiting.
When then Labor finance minister Penny Wong announced funding cuts for the bureaucracy in the 2013 budget, she said the focus would be on EL officers and senior executives.
Forced exits continued under prime minister Tony Abbott, after Mr Shepherd's commission found seven in eight APS supervisors were not busy enough.
The same review found one in four EL officers had no direct reports. However, it acknowledged this was justified in some instances, where EL staff were hired as specialists rather than supervisors.
A 2011 review of the SES, led by former departmental secretary Roger Beale, noted it had grown by more than 50 per cent in the seven years from 2003, and recommended stronger guidelines for senior executives' work-level standards.
The 2016-17 State of the Service report found 42 per cent of EL1 officers, and 15 per cent of EL2s, had no staff reporting directly to them.
Across the rest of the APS, workers are getting older and there are still more men at the higher levels.
The average age of a public servant is 43.6, but Canberra-based bureaucrats are slightly younger at 41.9, driven by the annual influx of graduates.
The number of public servants in Canberra has declined faster than in other locations.
In 2018, there were 186 more men than women in all three bands of the SES, despite only eight more men than women classed as graduates in the same year.
In the same year, 983 graduates started with the public service, down from more than 1400 graduates the year before.
The public service has taken on more than 1000 graduates every year since 2005, when 983 graduates also joined the ranks, the annual statistical bulletin shows.
The Australian Public Service Commission said the December figures may exclude some graduates who had finished their program and did not include graduates who were not classified as such.
The Tax Office and the Department of Agriculture do not use the graduate training classification, the commission said.
A spokeswoman for the Tax Office said the agency took on 215 graduates as part of the 2018 intake program, 20 of whom were based in Canberra.
People who join the Tax Office have been classified as APS3 since 2014 rather than GAA, which is the graduate classification, the spokeswoman said.
An Agriculture Department spokesman said 37 graduates joined the department's ranks for the Canberra-based program in 2018, down from 76 graduates in 2017.
Agriculture graduates have been classified as APS3 employees for more than 10 years.
The way graduates are classified does not account for the reduction in graduate numbers in the statistical bulletin between 2018 and previous years.
The number of employees starting in low classifications has also fallen. Just over 1000 people joined the public service at APS1 in 2006, while only 40 new employees started at the same level in 2018.
The number of new employees starting at APS2 has also fallen in the same period. Down from a peak of 1388 in 2005, 330 new employees started at level 2 in 2018.
The fall in lower classification jobs in the public service has largely been driven by increased automation.
The interim report of the Thodey review found 40 per cent of time currently spent on tasks by the APS involved processes that were at risk of automation.
Ms Kostyrko said entry-level roles had become expendable and departments preferred to use temporary staff when they needed work done at that level.
"Entry-level APS3 jobs are virtually extinct now," she said.
Graduates, who expect to rise departmental ranks quickly, were harder to retain when kept at lower classifications, so it was easier to use labour hire and contractors to fill lower classifications, Ms Kostyrko said.
Questions were referred to the assistant minister for the public service, Greg Hunt, who did not respond.