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5. Growth of the SES

Size and growth of the SES

At 30 June 2010, APS agencies reported for SES cap purposes a total of 2,850 SES employees. For SES cap reporting, agencies are asked to exclude short term acting in SES roles (to avoid double counting) and inoperative SES employees (these employees, such as those on long term leave, are not available to discharge their agency’s functions)8.

Historical SES data on this basis is not available, so in presenting data on the growth of the SES, this report (unless indicated otherwise) uses data from the APSC’s APSED that excludes non-SES employees acting in SES roles and includes inoperative SES employees. On this basis there were 2,727 SES at 30 June 2010. This compares with 1,697 SES employees at the inception of the SES in 1984. Growth in the SES since 1984 is depicted in Chart 3.1 below. This indicates that the absolute size of the SES varied by relatively little over the period 1984 to 2002. While there were variations reflecting budgetary shocks (eg the post 1996 drive to return to surplus) or organisational change (eg the reduction in the number of departments in 1987 from 28 to 18) these variations did not exceed 10 per cent of the average over the period. However the SES grew by 50 per cent from 2003 to 2010.

Chart 3.1: Total SES 1984 to 2010

Source: APSED

The size of the SES has been affected by changes in the coverage of the PS Act. The most notable of these changes have been the departure of the Australian Government Solicitor in 1999-00 with the loss of 85 SES and the arrival of Austrade (gain of 65) and the National Health and Medical Research Council (gain of 8) in 2006-07.

Of the 2,727 SES at 30 June 2010, 2,610 were employed on an ongoing basis and 117 were non-ongoing. Since 1996, the proportion of non-ongoing SES employees has increased from 0.7 per cent to 4.3 per cent.

SES employees are concentrated in portfolio departments (1,682 or 62 per cent) and five other large agencies (the Australian Taxation Office, Centrelink, Australian Customs and Border Protection Service, Medicare Australia and the Australian Bureau of Statistics with 481, or 18 per cent). A further 564 are spread over the remaining APS agencies.

The 2,727 SES employees at 30 June 2010 represent 1.7 per cent of the 164,596 total APS staff.

The SES as a share of total employees varies considerably by agency, from 0.3 per cent in Centrelink to eight per cent in the Department of the Treasury and 27.8 per cent in the Office of Parliamentary Counsel.

A major change in the SES over the last 15 years has been the steady increase in the representation of women – from 18 per cent of ongoing SES employees at June 1995 to 37 per cent at 30 June 2010. Women are still concentrated at lower levels in the SES. The gender composition of ongoing SES staff as at 30 June 2010 was 1,641 male and 969 female.

Time series data on hours worked by the SES is only available for the three years from 2008. The survey data for this period indicates that 89 per cent of employees in SES roles typically work 80 hours or more per fortnight.

Relative growth of the SES

As a proportion of all APS employees the SES has increased from 1 per cent in 1984 to 1.4 per cent in 2000 to 1.7 per cent in 2010.

In all but six years since its inception, the SES has grown faster than total APS employment. From 30 June 2009 to 30 June 2010, the SES grew by 1.64 per cent compared with growth of total APS employment of 1.7 per cent.

However this needs to be put in context. Much of the apparent rise in the proportionate size of the SES arises from absolute declines and significantly smaller growth in the lowest four levels of the APS. From 2000 to 2010, the level immediately below the SES – EL2s grew 69 per cent, EL1s grew 119 per cent and APS5-6 grew 64 per cent. By contrast APS 3-4 grew by 32 per cent –less than half the growth of Executive and middle management grades – and APS1-2 fell by 33 per cent.

Chart 3.2: Growth in SES employment and total APS employment 1984-2010, 1984=100

Source: APSED

Chart 3.3: Growth in employment by classification 2000-2010

Source: APSED

Distribution of growth across agencies

Rates of growth in the SES have varied considerably across agencies. Controlling for machinery of government changes, growth over the last decade has exceeded 100 per cent in the Departments of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, Finance and Deregulation, Immigration and Citizenship and a number of smaller agencies. Other large APS employers, such as the ABS and the Department of Veterans Affairs, have experienced low or no growth.

Fifty one per cent of the total growth in the SES over the period 2000 to 2010 is attributable to seven departments and one large agency.9 At 30 June 2010 these eight agencies employed 46 per cent of all SES employees compared with 43 per cent at 30 June 2000.

Chart 3.4: SES growth 2000-2010 - central agencies

Source: APSED

Chart 3.5: SES growth 2000-2010 - large department10

Source: APSED

Chart 3.6: SES growth 2000-2010 - medium departments

Source: APSED

Chart 3.7: SES growth 2000-2010 - large agencies

Source: APSED

Chart 3.8: SES growth 2000-2010 - small agencies

Source: APSED

Chart 3.9: SES as a share of total employment by agency 2000 and 2010

Source: APSED

Chart 3.10: SES as a share of total employment by agency 2000 and 2010

(excluding Defence, ATO and Centrelink)

Source: APSED

For most large agencies, growth in total employment SES geographical spread since 2000 has been accompanied by a (slight) increase in their ratio of SES to total employment (ie the arrows in charts 3.9 and 3.10 above point slightly upward).

In medium sized agencies a common trend is less discernable. In the cases of the Departments of Foreign Affairs and Trade and Finance and Deregulation increases in total employment have been accompanied by increases in their SES to total employment ratios. In contrast, increases in total employment in the Attorney General’s Department and the Department of the Treasury have been accompanied by a decreasing ratio of SES to total employment.

Growth by classification

The composition of the SES by classification level has remained relatively stable over the last decade. At 30 June 2010, SES Band 1 employees comprised just fewer than three-quarters of the SES at 74 per cent, with SES Band 2 at 21 per cent and SES Band 3 at five per cent.

Growth in SES numbers since 2000 has been strongest for SES Band 1 at 73 per cent, compared with 63 per cent for SES Band 2 and 35 per cent for SES Band 3.

SES geographical spread

The bulk of the SES is located in the ACT. At 30 June 2010 76 per cent of SES employees were located in Canberra. This proportion is unchanged from 2000. The share of SES based overseas has risen from five per cent in 2000 to 6.1 per cent in 2010.

Numbers of SES by location at 30 June 2010 were: ACT 2,081; Victoria 172; New South Wales 150; overseas 166; Queensland 64; South Australia 42; Western Australia 29; Tasmania 12; and Northern Territory 11.

Since 2000, the growth in overseas-based SES has been faster than growth in Australia-based SES.

Expenditure on SES remuneration has grown faster in real terms than growth in the numbers of SES, reflecting real increases in remuneration of the SES, and was approximately $650 million in 2008-09.11

Table 3.1 – Growth in the SES by classification 2000-2010
Classification 2000 2010 per cent change 2000-2010
SES 1 1161 2014 73 per cent
SES 2 352 573 63 per cent
SES 3 104 140 35 per cent
Source: APSED

Chart 3.11: SES by location 30 June 2010

Source: APSED

Chart 3.12: SES growth by location 2000-2010

Source: APSED

In the United Kingdom, positions at pay bands 1 and 2 of the Senior Civil Service are not subject to central controls other than through agency budgets. For positions at pay band 3 (the most senior), the Senior Leadership Committee (SLC) advises the Head of the Home Civil Service on individual appointments.

The United States of America’s Office of Personnel Management centrally controls SES growth by allocating “spaces” to agency heads on a biennial basis. Agency heads are expected to manage their resource needs within the allocated level including “reprogramming” existing spaces to meet high priority and unanticipated needs. As at 30 September 2007 there were 8,096 permanent SES positions: however, not all of these positions were filled.

International comparisons

Since the mid-1990s, growth in Australia’s SES, the United Kingdom Senior Civil Service and Canada’s Executive Group has been similar, although growth has been faster in Australia since 2003. All jurisdictions have also experienced growth in senior executives as a proportion of total public service employment.

In Canada, agencies are subject to quotas in respect of the two most senior levels of the executive group levels. Departments must seek Treasury Board approval to increase their approved total baseline of these positions.

Table 3.2: Growth is SES employment - international comparisons
Country   1996 2009 % increase 1996-2009
Australia SES 1779 2683 51%
  SES/Total 1.24% 1.66% 34%
United Kingdom SES 3680 4923 44%
  SES/Total 0.59% 0.87% 47%
Canada SES 3373 5162 53%
  SES/Total 1.66% 2.49% 50%
Source: APSED, Canadian Treasury Board Secretariat, United Kingdom Cabinet Office

Chart 3.13: Growth in the SES in Australia, the United Kingdom and Canada

Source: APSED, Canadian Treasury Board Secretariat, United Kingdom Cabinet Office

Australian jurisdictional comparisons

At 30 June 2008, the APS appeared to have the highest proportion of executives to the workforce of all Australian jurisdictions after the Northern Territory – refer table 3.3 below.

Comparisons with and between the APS and State and Territory public sector workforces need, however, to be treated with caution. The responsibilities and occupational groupings that are encompassed in the terms ‘public sector’ and ‘public service’ employment differ across jurisdictions. The Victorian public sector, for example, is divided into the Victorian Public Service – staff employed under the Public Administration Act 2004 and responsible primarily for providing “Parliament and Ministers with policy and administrative support required by a functioning Government” – and the larger public sector providing direct services in areas such as schooling, health and public order. The Victorian Public Service is much closer to the APS in terms of roles and responsibilities, and the proportion of Executives to other employees (around 1.7 per cent at 30 June 2009), is very similar to proportion of SES to other employees in the APS (1.6 per cent).

Table 3.3 – Senior executives in the public sector 2008
Jurisdiction Aggregate Workforce (headcount) Executives as proportion of workforce
Source: Mercer Australia/APSED
Queensland 238,987 0.2
Western Australia 131,931 0.3
New South Wales 329,321 0.6
Victoria 237,815 0.7
ACT 18,263 1.0
Tasmania 28,548 1.0
South Australia 53,829 1.5
APS 159,762 1.6
Northern Territory 16,485 2.6

State and territory public sectors differ fundamentally from the APS in that they have a stronger focus on direct delivery of services to their communities.

  • States and territories provide frontline services in health and education, and these often involve the bulk of employees in the sector. Sixty-five percent of Queensland Public Service Employees work in education or health, which includes large number of teachers, nurses and health workers. The largest occupational group in the Western Australian public sector is primary school teachers, followed by nurses and secondary school teachers. Seventy-two per cent of permanent Tasmanian public sector employees work in health or education.
  • Most State and Territory public sectors include the police and emergency services. The New South Wales public sector also encompasses the fire brigade and corrective services. The Victorian public sector includes the country and metropolitan fire brigades and the ambulance services.
  • State/territory public sectors also typically have responsibility in areas such as disability support and community work. In Queensland, nearly 80 per cent of employees “provide services which are directly utilised by the community of Queensland”12.
  • Finally, State/Territory public sectors tend to have many more ‘hands on’ responsibilities in areas such as public works and land management. The Western Australian public sector, for example, currently employs around 3,000 ‘commercial cleaners’.

State public sectors have a stronger focus on front line service delivery and typically require a much higher ratio of staff to management than the APS, whose primary role is policy advice and the development, funding and monitoring of programmes rather than their direct delivery.

Nor is it possible to make meaningful comparisons between agencies in different jurisdictions that appear to have similar functions and therefore would be expected to have similar SES profiles. The New South Wales Department of the Premier and Cabinet, for example, has responsibilities that include ‘coordination and planning of significant State events’, a responsibility requiring staffing levels and skills that has no counterpart in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

Controls on growth

The Blueprint recommended that there be no new net growth in the size of the SES until the SES Review is complete – unless exceptional circumstances are agreed with Government.

The APSC has administratively implemented the cap on SES numbers from late April 2010 and has monitored SES numbers against caps set for each APS agency. Agencies are required to report to the APSC the number of SES roles against their cap at the end of each month. There has not been a freeze on SES recruitment – agencies continue to be able to recruit SES staff, within their cap.

The aggregate SES cap across the APS at 31 December 2010 was 3,004 and the number of SES reported by agencies was 2,837, down from 2,850 at 30 June 2010.13 This lower figure indicates that agencies are operating within their caps and may reflect, in part, the limited recruitment activity that occurred during the extended caretaker period.

The States have also imposed various limits and/or controls on the growth of their SES or equivalent senior management group.

In some States there is evidence that, while such controls are popular politically, they can reduce leadership capacity, particularly in circumstances where the overall size of the service continues to grow in response to Government policies and priorities. In Victoria this has led to the increased use of consultants and non-SES specialist equivalents. Queensland has reported an increased use of fixed term contracts, with remuneration up to SES levels, to address ‘critical business needs’.

New South Wales (NSW)

The size of the SES in NSW has been on a downward trend as a result of steps taken by successive governments to freeze or reduce numbers. For example, in 2008 the NSW Government, driven by the need ‘for a robust ongoing appraisal of SES numbers in each agency, as priorities change and to generate savings’, made a commitment to reduce its SES by 20 per cent. This has resulted in a reduction of 171 positions. Each agency now has a notional limit on SES numbers imposed by the Department of the Premier and Cabinet. It is not clear what impact this has had on the overall performance of the public sector in NSW.

Table 3.4 – SES numbers in NSW
  2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010
SES (no.) 930 855 n.a. 840 853 696 708
Source: NSW Department of Premier and Cabinet

A separate senior officer classification exists for Public Service Departments in New South Wales. These positions are not SES positions, but have the equivalent work value to SES.


Executive numbers have been almost static for the past 10 years as a result of centrally-imposed constraints that require the Premier to approve any additional position(s). Requests are only considered in the context of new Government initiatives and programs.

There are currently around 664 Executive Officers.


The Queensland Public Service Act 2008 requires the number and classification levels of SES jobs to be fixed by the Governor in Council. Any changes to agency SES profiles must be approved by the Governor in Council. A 2009 Government initiated review – to determine the levels of positions needed to manage and administer the delivery of Government services – saw an overall reduction of approximately 12 per cent in SES jobs.

Western Australia

In 2001 the Western Australian Government reduced the number of SES by around 15 per cent. It has subsequently maintained this level through WA Public Service Commission controls that require approval for the creation, reclassification and staffing of SES positions. No specific cap operates for executive officers although the Government has a general full time equivalent cap applicable for the public sector. The previous Government introduced an SES employment target ratio of between 0.38 per cent to 0.40 per cent of the total public sector.

South Australia

The State’s 2010-11 Budget included a 20 per cent cut to the number of SES over the next three years. Half of the reduction is to be achieved as part of broader budgetary reductions to the South Australian public sector. Agencies will be required to achieve the remainder of the reduction through ‘management structure reforms’. Details on how this will operate are not yet available.


Agencies wanting to create an SES position must seek the approval of the Premier and this process is claimed to have kept down disproportionate growth. A specific budget objective in 2010 to abolish 25 positions in response to the global financial crisis saw a decrease in its SES of around 9 per cent.

Northern Territory

The Northern Territory has no formal controls over executive numbers other than budget availability. It recently imposed a two year cap on overall agency numbers but this did not specifically address executive roles.

The private sector

A survey of a small number of private sector firms by Mercer indicated that executive numbers were determined by:

  • business strategy & model
  • profit ratios & financial results
  • executive talent strategy and
  • business effectiveness, efficiency & cost base, including the issue of span of control.

One organisation surveyed undertook “occasional benchmarking” but none of the other organisations formally monitored or benchmarked executive numbers.

Mercer identified three key drivers to changes in executive numbers in corporate Australia:

  • changes to the business strategy and/or business model
  • a new chief executive officer causing a new direction and
  • acquisitions/divestitures and further changes as a result of post merger integration.

Corporate use of selective downsizing can be a way of reducing cost and increasing cost consciousness among executives while at the same time symbolically reassuring investors after a tough trading patch. For example, in 2005 Telstra embarked on a cull of middle management to improve efficiency by reducing bureaucracy and simplifying decision-making processes. The move immediately preceded the full sale of Telstra – T3. BHP-Billiton has downsized its corporate headquarters, removing many senior positions. Partly these have been replaced in product divisions, partly they result from reducing the attempt to analyse and control some issues centrally and partly functions have been outsourced to high end consultancy firms. Critically this reorganisation has been related to a change in business strategy to simplify BHP-Billiton’s mission and focus on its key mining strengths. Similar examples of careful reductions in senior executive cadres can be found in the course of Wesfarmers’ and Woodside’s corporate history.

However, some studies (Clark and Koonce14) suggest that almost 70 per cent of all corporate downsizing, restructuring, and reengineering efforts are unsuccessful. This is particularly so when downsizing is not an element of an integrated business strategy and accompanied by careful management of all aspects of both the reduction process and the training of staff remaining. Pfeffer suggests that organisations do not become more profitable or efficient following arbitrary downsizing. According to Pfeffer this ‘…is because in a downsizing, sometimes the wrong people leave and the company has to later bring back laid-off employees as contractors’15.

As fast as managers are laid off, new ones seem to be needed. As people are laid off, the work they did usually remains. It happens when the focus of downsizing is on body-count reduction, assuming the organisation and the work will somehow take care of themselves. They seldom do, and companies that approach downsizing this way find it hard to stay lean after the immediate economic pressure lets up.16

Instead of increased profitability or efficiency these organisations typically experienced a range of negative consequences such as decreasing employee productivity and morale, and increasing levels of absenteeism, cynicism, and turnover.

In the words of one executive at a large chemical company, it took us two months to decide to do layoffs, two weeks to do it, and two years to recover.17

Unsuccessful downsizing does not address the real underlying issues. In the corporate world these may relate to strategy, market, quality or logistical issues.

Approaching downsizing as a major cost reduction tool to increase share holder returns can undermine an organisation’s ability to position itself for new challenges in the longer term. It is also critical how any downsizing is handled – by management selection of poorer performers and protection of key personnel to meet future challenges or by ‘voluntary’ reduction approaches relying on incentives or the non-replacement of departing staff.

The case of early retirement incentives illustrates this problem. More than 85 percent of firms in an American Management Association survey of 1,005 companies reported the loss of their star performers when early retirement packages were offered. Firms found that this undifferentiated approach to saving costs resulted in the wrong people leaving the system .18

Finding 3.1: The SES has grown rapidly since 2003. It has grown by 50 per cent over the period, that is:

  • more rapidly than the Australian Public Service as a whole (25 per cent);
  • more rapidly than the Australian population which grew by 22 per cent; and
  • much more rapidly than it did between its establishment in 1984 and 2003.

Finding 3.2: Nevertheless the SES grew less strongly over this period than did the numbers of Executive level staff which grew by 65 per cent. APS1 and 2 staff numbers actually declined by 13 per cent and 31 per cent respectively, reflecting the impact of technology principally but also the contracting out of some routine services.

Finding 3.3: Growth in the SES equivalent grades in the United Kingdom and Canadian civil services has been similarly higher than for their respective civil services as a whole suggesting that some of the factors relating to complexity, national security, ICT, media scrutiny and the associated accelerating policy cycle may be common.

Finding 3.4: The APS has a higher ratio of SES equivalent staff than the State public sectors, however the case of Victoria suggests that if a comparison is made on a “like with like” basis by excluding the State front line delivery services (teaching, police, health etc) the proportions are very similar. There have been cuts in the SES equivalent grades in NSW and Victoria, offset to some extent by growth in senior non-SES specialist staff and greater use of contracting.

Finding 3.5: It proved impossible to get meaningful comparisons with the private sector in relation to the proportion of SES equivalent staff. Mercer suggests that the key drivers of private sector executive numbers, and changes in them, are:

  • business strategy and model – and changes thereto
  • profit ratios and financial results
  • executive talent strategy
  • business effectiveness, efficiency and cost base, including the issue of span of control
  • a new chief executive officer causing a new direction and
  • acquisitions/divestitures and further changes as a result of post merger integration or demerger.

Finding 3.6: Successful downsizing exercises in the private and public sectors are linked to market,strategy, policy and program fundamentals and managed actively to ensure that the right people remain and the capacity of the organisation is not compromised.

8 At 30 June 2010 there were 3,167 SES employees – including non-SES acting in SES roles and inoperative staff.

9 The Departments of Defence, Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, Finance and Deregulation, Foreign Affairs and Trade, Health and Ageing, Immigration and Citizenship, the Treasury and the ATO.

10 For 2010 the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade data includes 97 substantive SES positions in Australia’s diplomatic missions overseas – including Ambassadors, High Commissioners, Consul General’s, and Deputy Heads of Mission

11 APSED and Mercer 2009 Remuneration Survey

12 Queensland Government, Queensland Public Service Workforce Characteristics: 2009-2010, 7

13 For cap purposes, employees acting in SES roles for a period of less than three months are ignored, as are inoperative SES employees – eg those on long-term leave.

14 Clark, J., and Koonce, R. (1995). Engaging organisational survivors. Training & Development, 49, 8

15 Jeffrey Pfeffer, Downsizing Doesn’t Work, The Washington Post, February 9, 2009

16 Jane Atwood, Ethel Coke, Christine Cooper and Kendra Loria, Has Downsizing Gone Too Far?, A review of the history and results of downsizing, http://iopsych.org/downsize.htm#table, December, 1995

17 Pfeffer, op cit.

18 Bennett, A. 1991. Downsizing doesn’t necessarily bring an upswing in corporate profitability. The Wall Street Journal (June 6), cited in Douglas H. Harris, (ed) 1994 Organisational Linkages: Understanding the Productivity Paradox

Last reviewed: 
29 March 2018