Let the state of a many-body system at an initial time be specified, completely or partly; find the expectation values, correlations and fluctuations of single-particle observables at a later time. The characteristic function of these observables is optimized within a general variational scheme. The expansion of the optimal characteristic function provides the same results as the conventional mean-field approaches for the thermodynamic potentials and the expectation values: for fermions the best initial state is then the Hartree-Fock (HF) solution and the evolution is described by the time-dependent Hartree-Fock (TDHF) equation. Two special cases are investigated as preliminary steps. The first case deals with the evaluation of correlations for static problems, where the initial and final times coincide. In the second special case, the exact initial state is assumed to be an independent-particle one. (K.A.) 23 refs.; 1 fig.