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Rumours are swirling, numbers being bandied about, totals projected and denied. How severely will the federal public service be downsized? How many layoffs will there be? What will the severance packages cost?

With Finance Minister Jim Flaherty's landmark 2012 budget only 15 days away, the Ottawa machine is spinning in neutral, as departments wait to hear whether their budget will be cut by 5 per cent, 10 per cent, or somewhere in between, and what that will mean for both programs and for the workforce.

The Tories insist that any speculation is simply, well, speculation. But the government is prepared to lay down a few markers.

One: The total number of people laid off, after attrition and buyouts have taken care of the rest, will be sufficiently modest to not cause much of a stir.

Two: Any costs related to severance and other compensation that results from downsizing will be considerably less than the amount of money being saved. And severance costs must be born by the department through its new budget, not deducted from savings.

Three, collective agreements will be respected, laying to rest the notion that the government was planning override legislation.

Four: While there won't be another round of government-wide spending reductions next year, departments should expect to see any future increases tied to inflation and population growth, at best. Spending caps will be the norm. Funding for any new initiative will have to come from cuts elsewhere.

This is particularly important. Having presided over an ever-swelling bureaucracy and a raft of new programs during six years in office, the Tories claim to have finally got religion. After this round of downsizing, they plan to keep the pressure on departments by limiting any future increases. We will have to see whether they succeed where so many other governments—who typically open the spigots wide after brief bouts of austerity—have failed.

Five: As the 18 major bargaining units within the federal public service enter negotiations for new contracts, management will be pushing for greater flexibility to reward superior performance and to prune dead weight.

The Conservatives are not gearing for a major showdown with their unions. But they do expect future pay increases to be based more on performance and less on seniority. They want to reverse the trend of new arrivals who quit after a year or two, frustrated with the legendary inertia of the federal bureaucracy. They want those who demonstrate an ability and willingness to do more with less to rise quickly, at the expense of those who simply fight to retain the status quo.

To which you should respond: Yeah, right. Governments across the developed world have proclaimed the same goals over and over again, and achieved little. The nature of the public service discourages individual initiative for a reason: Assuming personal responsibility, pushing the envelope, treating government like a business can result in savings and improved performance. It can also result in cock-ups, and unlike the private sector, public-sector cock-ups earn headlines and gleeful attacks by the opposition.

Bottom line: We aren't likely to see a full-on showdown between the government and public-sector unions over spending cuts and new contracts, but we are likely to see a whole lot of aggro as labour fights to retain its traditional privileges, while management pushes to make it easier to hire and fire, punish and promote.

Just don't expect radical change. The bureaucracy is a bureaucracy, after all.