In 2012 let's resolve to ban the phrase 'more for less' when talking about the future of public services.
In the Autumn Statement, George Osborne made it clear that 'austerity' will continue for at least five more years. Indeed, many commentators expect a return to the pre-2010 levels of public expenditure to be even more years away, if it is ever to be retrieved.
The hard truth is, of course, that government expenditure targets cannot possibly be met simply by incremental budget adjustments or through 'efficiency savings'. Of course, public sector agencies should always be striving to be more efficient and to use scarce resources more effectively. Every pound spent inefficiently and/or ineffectively is a pound no longer available to finance a critical activity or service, and there are always opportunities to be more efficient.
However, most of the traditional options for reducing costs are no longer sufficient. For example, even were most local authorities to eliminate all their "back office" support services, let alone outsource them, they would still be a long way from meeting their budget gaps. Cutting staff terms and conditions are unsustainable, as well as being de-motivating at the very time when staff need to be onside to embrace change. And 'salami slicing' (the traditional tool for cutting costs) leads to over stretch and ever declining quality of service; - and eventually the sausage runs out! So let's not kid ourselves that budgets can be balanced and needs still met by doing 'more for less'.
What is needed is 'different with a lot less'.
Indeed, even if we were not facing the severest public sector budget challenges since the Second World War, there would have to have been major change across the public sector - a fact accepted by all political parties.
The drivers for change are numerous, and include demographic changes and in particular the growing numbers of very elderly people; changes in household and family profiles; the fast developments in technology; and rising public expectations to mention but a few. These are unavoidable.
The public sector has to face up to change and recognise that the easy options, if they ever really existed, are few and far between, and most have been exhausted.
I am not a sailor, but those of my friends who are have told me that in the face of a severe storm, the only way to survive is to have total focus on your destination, set a clear course, apply total discipline, clear the clutter, turn into the wind - and hold your nerve. Hoping for the best just doesn't work.
For the public sector hoping for the best will not do.
All public sector agencies must brace themselves to be radical and bold. Of course, some of the options are deeply unpalatable - but doing the least worse is likely to be preferable to doing nothing. The latter will likely have seriously damaging implications resulting in increased demands on smaller budgets or simply shunting the problem off to some other agency in an unplanned and un-coordinated manner.
Inevitably there will be a need to stop doing some activities and to stop funding some others by whoever they are provided. But the opportunity should be taken to review every activity and every budget line. And since there must be the scope to introduce new programmes and new services, so 'financial space' to fund 'invest to save' and new activities, and developing different skill sets and talent has to be created in addition to simply balancing the books.
This applies at the macro as well as the micro level and hard decisions such as the future funding of adult social care should not be avoided by government. Equally, Government must resist always reaching for organisational change (one thinks of the NHS, for example) instead of cultural reform and service re-design.
At a local level, local authorities must seize the opportunity offered by their community leadership role to work with and influence other public sector bodies, the local voluntary and community sector, and local businesses. There should be a shared vision for the locality and collaborative approaches to deploying resources to meet need. Whole system approaches to the design of services and the use of resources really does have the potential to lead to substantially different outcomes with lower costs. However, to succeed, such approaches have to be based on 'genuine' collaboration with the ceding and sharing of power and budgets. There is no place (and there is not time either) for posturing and self-protectionism. What a waste it will be if the community budget initiative is seen solely as a public sector opportunity. All human and other capital in a place must be allowed 'and encouraged' to fulfil their potential whilst the independence, particularly of the voluntary and community sectors, is respected.
Often the business case to invest in new ways of working and/or preventive programmes demonstrates that with some additional investment now there will be both better outcomes and financial savings in the longer term. The public sector has no other option but to increasingly consider alternative sources of finance - from social investment to private investment to exploiting its own assets. Let's remember that many public sector agencies are asset and property rich - whilst being revenue light.
There is both necessity and imperative to develop the right kinds of partnerships with the private sector and to support the development of sustainable mutual and social enterprises.
Inevitably, the changes required will involve revising the relationship with service users - there could be more self-provision, more co-production and in some cases co-payments. However, the current budget pressures and cuts are not an excuse for simply passing responsibility for funding onto individuals where this would be both divisive and unfair.
Public sector leaders have an opportunity - even if one than many of them would not have chosen - to demonstrate their ability and resolve to steer their way through this storm - and begin to reshape a very different public service landscape. And in so doing, they must and can honour equity, fairness and the promotion of opportunity for all.