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Public Sector

Last updated on December 2, 2021

Definitions of the public sector

It is difficult to define what the public sector is, and depending on your perspective, you might see it differently. Jan-Erik Lane explains in his book The Public Sector: Concepts, Models and Approaches that the public sector can be defined in a number of ways, some of which are and can be categorized as:

General public sector definition
– “Government activity and its consequences”

Definition with a legal and authority focus
– “State general decision-making and its outcomes”

Definition(s) of economic focus
– “Governmental consumption and investment”
– “Government production”

What is the public sector?

The Public Sector is usually comprised of organizations that are owned and operated by the government and exist to provide services for its citizens. Services like health care, national defense, public education, water management, and similar are typically provided by the public sector. Similar to the voluntary sector, organizations in the public sector do not seek to generate a profit.

Funding for public services is usually raised through a variety of methods, including taxes, fees, and through financial transfers from other levels of government (e.g. from a federal to a provincial or state government).

Different governments from around the world may employ their own unique method of funding for public services.

For example, in Canada, a Crown corporation is an enterprise owned by the Crown (or Queen) but still has the ability to function as a private enterprise. The BC Lottery Corporation is a provincial Crown corporation and in 2013/14 generated $1.17 billion dollars of net revenue that it was able to directly invest back into BC’s provincial economy.

Sometimes the public sector will partner with an organization in the private sector to create a public-private partnership. These hybrid organizations (named P3s) work together to jointly deliver a service or business venture to a community (see examples).

Through the process of outsourcing, public sector organizations will often engage private enterprises to deliver goods and services to their citizens.

Read more: What is the difference between the public and private sectors?

Examples of the Public Sector

Examples of public sector services and organizations include:

  • Education (Schools, Libraries)
  • Electricity
  • Emergency Services
  • Fire Service
  • Gas and Oil
  • Healthcare
  • Infrastructure
  • Law Enforcement
  • Police Services
  • Postal Service
  • Public Transit
  • Social Services
  • Waste Management

Apart from the services mentioned above, the public sector also consists of public infrastructures, such as public roads, tunnels, sewage systems, and electrical grids.

Levels of Government

Public sector organizations usually exist at three levels:

  • Federal or National
  • Regional (State or Provincial)
  • Local (Municipal or County)

Providing public services is often the responsibility of several levels of government, each of which provides some or all of the services. Because of this, public services are often delivered through a variety of different intergovernmental organizations simultaneously.

Trends in the Public Sector

In the United States, researchers Keith Hall and Robert Greene state that since the beginning of the Great Recession, the private sector has been shrinking while the public sector has been growing in most states.

In Canada, the public sector is also ‘crowding out’ private job growth.

In the United Kingdom, the opposite seems to be true: the private sector is growing while the public sector is shrinking.

Public sector’s five largest employers

According to research done in 2019 by Statista, the top 5 largest state-owned Fortune 500 companies are as follows:

  1. China National Petroleum (China) – ca. 1.34 million employees
  2. China Post Group (China) – ca. 927.000 employees
  3. State Grid (China) – ca. 907.000 employees
  4. U.S. Postal Service (USA) – ca. 565.000 employees
  5. Deutsche Post (Germany) – ca. 504.000 employees

Despite their appearance and behavior as private companies, these companies are de facto public companies. This is particularly true for Chinese companies.

Public sector jobs

According to a 2019 UK study, a majority of the workers in the public sector are women (ca. 65%). This is primarily due to the fact that more women are choosing careers in education, facilities management, and healthcare. Police officers (70% men), doctors (54% men), and university lecturers (52% men) were the three occupations with more men than women.

The most common jobs in the public sector are:

  1. Teachers (primary and secondary school) – ca. 15,7%
  2. Nurses and midwives (including assistants) – ca. 11,1%
  3. Administrators – ca. 4%

Some other examples of public sector jobs and professions include:

  • Social workers
  • City planners
  • Guidance counselors
  • Art administrators
  • Immigrant support specialists
  • Financial caseworkers
  • Personal assistants
  • Coast guards
  • Firefighters
  • Crossing guards
  • Transit authorities
  • Statisticians
  • Theatre managers
  • Intelligence analysts
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