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Lawrence MartinBrigitte Bouvier/The Globe and Mail

Our sprawling public service, the quarter-million strong mainstay of government that no one outside Ottawa cares about, is under siege.

A showdown brews. Treasury Board President Tony Clement, perhaps with good reason, sees too much fat, too much pay, too many benefits for the legions of apparatchiks. He is taking dead aim. In the process, the government, in keeping with its anti-union proclivities, is stripping down bureaucrats' collective bargaining rights.

It's been a distressing and dispiriting period for the public service. The desk jockeys used to operate with a fair degree of independence. No more. Not while under the thumb of the Tories. If they were known for speaking truth to power in the past, they're known now for their padlocked jaws.

Afraid to risk the wrath of their political bosses, they've fallen on bended knee. One of the most farcical displays of the new subservience came when they were deployed as stand-in stooges in a Conservative promotional exercise for a citizenship reaffirmation program. The media dubbed the charade "the full North Korean."

There have been some exceptions to the toadying: diplomat Richard Colvin standing up on the Afghan detainees affair, Kevin Page doing the same on fiscal transparency. The occasional whistle-blower has had the courage to come forward. A recent case was Employment Insurance investigator Sylvie Therrien. She revealed that investigators are made to attain quotas and wanted it known that many EI claimants were being harassed and improperly penalized as result. As with Mr. Colvin and Mr. Page, her candour caused consternation. She was suspended without pay.

Lack of transparency, accountability and trust have become prime sources of grief for a Conservative government that promised otherwise. Its bullying of the public service is part of the problem, as is the willingness of deputy ministers and lily-hearted mandarins to take it.

On the matter of new labour laws restricting collective bargaining, the federal unions are taking the government to court. As can be imagined, they oppose the downsizing plans and the paring of salaries and benefits.

But there is likely to be little public sympathy on these issues. Despite the Conservatives' small-government vision and despite efficiencies that should come with the high-tech era, the size of the public service has grown over recent years. Cuts are overdue, especially with the priority affixed to budget balancing.

In the face of all the problems, top bureaucrat Wayne Wouters, Clerk of the Privy Council, has unveiled Blueprint 2020, a vision for a reformed world-class public service. Many such reform and modernization schemes have been tried in the past with scant results. This one, which follows a commendable consultation process within the service, is full of fine-sounding stuff like citizen engagement, smart use of new technologies and a whole-of-government approach to improve service delivery and value for money.

To veteran civil-service watchers such as Donald Savoie of the University of Moncton, it likely won't amount to much. It's "like grabbing smoke," he told Kathryn May of the Ottawa Citizen. Meaningful reform won't come, he said, until the relationship with the politicians is redefined.

But not much in Mr. Wouters's plan appears aimed at restoring the degree of independence the public service has traditionally exercised. Its politicization, a most serious example being that of the Privy Council Office, must be stopped. The public service should be accountable not only to the executive branch but also to Parliament. On the latter, says Mr. Page, it has dropped the ball, at the price of a loss in public trust.

Meaningful reform would entail something like what's been proposed by former Treasury Board executive Ralph Heintzman. What is needed, he says, is a "moral contract," a charter that sets well-defined boundaries between ministers, public servants and Parliament.

That's something that would help restore checks and balances to our system. Unsurprisingly, there has been little response to the proposal.

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