Our advice? Do not breathe a sigh of relief

I'm prepared to bet you rarely, if ever, read reports written by the Wales Audit Office from cover to cover. Maybe I've got you all wrong. Maybe you do little else in your spare time but somehow, I doubt it.

With apologies to the Wales Audit Office, I can't say I blame you either but if you've half and hour to spare over the next few days, read this one: A Picture of Public Services 2011.

Don't read it if you want a boost.

Don't read it if you're after false promises.

Read it because it paints, in the clearest of terms, a devastatingly stark picture of what is facing public services in Wales.

It is clear for a good reason. This report isn't meant to bamboozle.

It is meant to help the people who will decide which services to cut and by how much. It is meant to help those who'll have to lead Wales' public services and its 340,000 workers through those cuts. And it is meant, too, to help those who'll need the health service, who are educated in Welsh schools and colleges, who rely on social workers, travel by bus and want their roads kept clean to understand what is coming their way and why - and to challenge decisions, not because they seem tough but only when they believe them to be wrong.

There are some clear headlines, not least the forecast that 21,000 jobs will be lost in the public sector over the next four years. Even more striking, somehow, is the sober warning that the real impact doesn't kick in until 2014-15.

Yes, the Welsh Government "had prudently planned for a worst-case scenario" before the Spending Review last year. The pot of cash they actually got turned out to be smaller but not quite as small as they'd feared. But even that has its pitfalls, says the WAO:

"There is a danger that public services may now breathe a sigh of relief, knowing that things are not as bad as they could have been". To those tempted to breathe that sigh of relief the warning is: don't. You might think things are bad now but don't lose sight of the fact that they really are going to get much, much worse.

What about the big question? Might these "unprecedented cuts" lead to a leaner - yes - but also fitter public sector in Wales? Pushing for more collaboration between those bodies who deliver services in Wales gets a big tick. Pushing in a way that is regarded by some as "confused and overly prescriptive" does not.

There are many examples of what the government is doing right but there is also this conclusion:

"In our view, there is a real strategic gap in terms of guidance and direction around cuts".

What are the chances, then, of harnessing these "unprecedented cuts" and delivering a better, healthier economy when all the cutting is done? A big question left hanging.

Keep going and there's more. The challenges facing the NHS, for instance, which the report concludes is "likely to struggle to meet the immediate financial challenges".

The Conservative will, I think, turn to p.17 and spot this:

"Although it is hard to be certain, the budget plans suggest that spending on health per head of population in Wales is likely to be the lowest of any of the countries in the UK by 2014 - 15".

I sat up when I got to p.43.

Here is a warning that in future - unlike the past - the health service cannot expect to be bailed out, or given extra hand-outs, if it is struggling to deliver with what it has been given. What might that mean?

"The danger is that if no end-of-year funding is forthcoming, the NHS may need to make short-term cuts without having the time to assess the potential impact on patient care".

Bleak? Yes.

Stark? Certainly.

One solution that's shown some real success in reshaping public services? According to p.53, the "Kafka Brigade Method".

Let's just say that his method - and his novels - make for equally depressing reading.