Shaping our shared future through public services

Issues such as criminal justice, education, national intelligence, state welfare, public health, social care and local services are on the agenda of any government – as well as the people they serve. After all, even incremental improvements or deterioration in public service delivery have the potential to impact millions of citizens.

Understanding what young people and adults want, need and expect is important to knowing how public services can best meet their needs. Demand for better public service delivery is high – and demand for individuals with the skills, expertise and abilities to help shape the services used by everyone is also high.

What are public services?

The public sector refers to organisational bodies owned, controlled and funded by the government. Public services, therefore, are any industries and businesses that operate in this sphere; they are taxpayer-funded, available to the public, and intended to support communities.

The public services sector constitutes six groups:

  • Central government – government departments and agencies
  • Local government – councils, emergency services such as police services and fire services, and other local service providers
  • Higher education – colleges, academies and universities
  • Schools – state-funded primary schools, secondary schools and nurseries
  • NHS – hospital trusts, ambulance trusts, GP surgeries, clinical commissioning groups and state-funded health services
  • Private-run public services – charity public services, care homes, housing associations and social care.

Indeed list further examples of public services as social enterprises, energy, telecommunications, public transportation and infrastructure, urban planning, waste management, environmental protection, consumer protection, immigration and customs, postal services, recreation facilities, sanitation services, public broadcasting, and agricultural programmes. In terms of examples of specific organisations , these include the BBC, the Office for National Statistics, the Bank of England, the Civil Service, and the Armed Forces.

Because public bodies and services are ‘for the people’, each public authority is bound by the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the Environmental Information Regulations (EIR) and INSPIRE Regulations.

What is the difference between the public and private sectors?

Partnerships are common between public and private sector businesses and services – but what is the difference between the two?

While public services refers to organisations run by the government, private sector businesses are privately owned and are not necessarily affiliated with the government. Private sector businesses – of which they are thought to be around six million in the UK – operate on a for-profit basis.

There are other key differences between the two, such as the number of job opportunities available; approximately 5.3 million people are employed within the UK public sector, and 27 million people within the UK private sector. While many of the job titles and industries are very similar – for example, within healthcare – pay and salaries often differ dramatically. Not only are public services not-for-profit, but pay is linked to government allowances and organised into structured pay scales. Public service employees also benefit from greater job stability and more comprehensive pensions and benefits packages.

What are the issues in public service delivery?

UK public services vary widely across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as well as the regions within each. Public services and their outcomes are indelibly linked to government budgets and the amount of funding available

As well as budgetary constraints, there are concerns about how public services are managed. Recent data collected by Ipsos highlights that 7 in 10 Britons do not think the government’s policies will improve public services. The public cite issues such as the cost of living crisis, NHS waiting lists, crime and policing, social care, the climate crisis and a lack of affordable housing.

A PwC report titled ‘The road ahead for public service delivery’ identified a number of key drivers in transforming public services for the better, each rooted in addressing customer expectations:

  • Speed. Service providers should aim to deliver services in the shortest possible time for customers, and make sure they are right the first time.
  • Engagement. Services should adopt a customer-centric approach, both participatory and trustworthy.
  • Responsive. Any variation in ability to meet service levels should be monitored and controlled by an intelligent mechanism.
  • Value. Service delivery should be cost-effective and driven by customer outcomes rather than organisational processes.
  • Integration. Services should be integrated and collaborative to ensure customers can be referred and signposted to the services they need from other public organisations.
  • Choice. Service delivery should occur across multiple ‘channels of choice’, dictated by specific customer needs at a given time.
  • Experience. Aim to personalise the customer experience, in line with experiences they receive from private sector services.

How many of these aims will be financially feasible is difficult to pinpoint and presents ongoing challenges for public services organisations and their leaders. Open Public Services (OPS), part of the Cabinet Office, is the government’s reform programme for public services. It encompasses central government, local government, private sector and civil society, aiming to ensure all individuals have access to optimal services. 

What skills are required for a career in public administration?

Public administration is a varied field, providing you with opportunities to pursue a career in any number of industries and positions. Employees within the public sector – from paramedics to policymakers – often spend much of their time applying critical thinking skills to complex situations and phenomena while devising solutions to common and systemic issues.

Job experts Prospects list a number of fundamental skills for a career in public administration:

  • Communication and diplomacy
  • Leadership and influence
  • An ability to formulate reasoned, logical arguments
  • Collaborative working
  • Resilience.

Are you passionate about leading change and improving public life?

Interested in public service leadership? Join the frontline of developing public services for current and future generations with the University of York’s online MPA programme.

Gain the skills to enhance public performance, handle pressurised, challenging situations, and navigate complex policy context, in a course designed for professionals working in both the public and non-profit spheres. You’ll develop as a strategic, capable and inspirational leader, on a flexible study programme that works around you. Study a wide variety of topics ranging from public finance and procurement, policy analysis and ethical leadership, to service democratisation, regulatory governance and managing change.

Public administration: serving the needs of the people

While public services and public administration is largely the purview of government, the real-world application of its planning, orchestration and development and performance can be a far larger, and more-complex, affair. Prospects, a specialist in graduate careers, estimates that there are 5.6 million individuals working in the public sector in the United Kingdom. Add this to the number of people working in public administration-adjacent capacities outside the public sector, and the number is far higher still.

In our daily lives, we may be unaware of the sheer scale of service provision, but those working both at the frontline and in behind-the-scenes capacities perform critical roles that have an effect on our individual livelihoods and that of wider society. But what does public administration involve – and what careers are available to those interested in working in public affairs and public management?

What is public administration?

Public administration refers to the sector – which, depending on the country, may be governmental, public sector, private sector, non-profit organisations and local agencies – that works to meet the needs of the public, and maintain a civil society through public policy and programme coordination. A wide-ranging field, it encompasses the planning, organising, directing, coordination and control of national and local government operations.

In the UK, the term civil servants refers to those who are employed by ‘His Majesty’s Civil Service’.and, collectively, the Civil Service “helps the government of the day develop and implement its policies as effectively as possible.” An independent body – but one that is overseen and managed by the prime minister – its work spans various agencies, central government departments and non-departmental government bodies (NDPBs). The Civil Service does not include: individuals working for the National Health Service (NHS); the police; the British Armed Forces; government ministers or officers of local government or NPDBs; or those working for the Royal Household.

The Civil Service adheres to four overarching standards.

  • Integrity: the obligations of public service must come before personal interests.
  • Honesty: the Civil Service must be truthful and open.
  • Objectivity: advice and decisions must be rigorous and evidence-based.
  • Impartiality: the Civil Service must act according to the merits of the case, and equally serve governments of all political parties.

What does public administration involve?

Public service is a complex, fast-paced and changeable environment, characterised by the pressure to deliver in critical areas of need but often with limited resources. It requires individuals with the ability to navigate complicated policy issues – grounded in multiple, competing contexts – and improve service performance.

It has a broad remit, generally encompassing law enforcement, education, health and social care, all levels of government, business administration, and more. As such, its responsibilities are equally broad, although the specifics of public administration vary from country to country. Responsibilities are likely to include, for example:

  • public safety
  • social policy
  • community development
  • crisis management
  • sustainability
  • environmental management

The individual roles of public servants vary considerably. While policy making and policy analysis dictates much of the overall work, examples of wider roles may include:

  • political risk analyst
  • company secretary
  • education administrator
  • equality, diversity and inclusion manager
  • government social research officer
  • intelligence analyst
  • statistician
  • health service manager
  • environmental health practitioner
  • corporate treasurer
  • diplomatic service officer

Public administration in a business context

Management practice in public service and governmental environments continues to be shaped by concepts regarding government – from its leadership, performance and efficacy to its efficiency, organisation and drivers.

There is much to learn from public administration trends and activities.

  • How is performance measured and improved?
  • What accountability mechanisms are built into the process?
  • What is the nature of leadership and how can it impact societal and cultural change – both within, and external to, a services context?
  • How is evidence gathered and used as a basis for effecting change, influencing policy, making decisions and developing solutions?
  • What can it teach us about fiscal management, wider reforms, working within tight constraints and enhancing performance?
  • How do government policies impact the way business is conducted?

Pursuing a career within public administration

While there is no specific path to a career in the public administration field, the vast majority of positions require a university degree and, often, skills across business and management.

Depending on the career ambition – and which level, or either seniority or experience a role requires – it may be useful to undertake specific undergraduate or postgraduate study for that area. There are plenty of higher education institutions to choose from, and course focus is wide-ranging. You can choose courses tailored to your professional development needs, for example across fields such as public policy, labour relations, programme development or public finance. Master’s degrees are generally required for management-level positions and roles that directly develop and implement public programmes.

Work experience and other professional experience can help to set you apart from other graduates, as well as giving you valuable insight into the workings of the sector. It may be helpful to have an academic background in social science or political science, but it is not essential. Entry requirements, part-time and full-time study options, tuition fees and other details vary by provider – for further information, ordering prospectuses or attending open days can help you to make an informed choice.

Gain the skills to enact meaningful change in the challenging public administration sector

Are you passionate about making a difference in the lives of citizens and their communities? The University of York’s online Master of Public Administration (MPA) programme aims to equip you with the insight and know-how to pursue senior leadership positions in this changeable, critical field.

Our flexible MPA degree offers an in-depth, holistic and contemporary view of the decision making, strategic planning, financial management and leadership involved in effective public administration. Expand your knowledge through specialist modules as you discover a multi-dimensional approach to administration which spans policy process, organisational and human contexts, and the wider environment that dictates public service demands and limitations. 

What is the voluntary sector?

The voluntary sector, often referred to as the third sector, sits outside of the public and private sectors to focus exclusively on creating social impact and community change.

Other names for the voluntary sector include:

  • the not-for-profit sector.
  • the non-profit sector.
  • the community sector.
  • civil society.

As its name implies, the voluntary sector is largely fueled by the efforts of volunteers who work together to achieve common goals, as well as donations and other forms of monetary contributions, such as grants and fundraising.

Voluntary sector organisations are typically run by independent boards that set strategic priorities and objectives that are based on values, rather than profits. Voluntary organisations operate without influence from private shareholders or governmental mandates.

Why is the voluntary sector important?

The voluntary sector often acts as a safety net to catch people who fall outside of government or other public sector support. For example, vulnerable people without access to safe housing may find affordable accommodation through certain voluntary sector organisations, while people struggling to make ends meet can access food banks or other forms of support or advice.

In addition to offering services directly to people in need, the voluntary sector also promotes and advocates for wider, long-term social or systemic change on behalf of marginalised communities. 

Issues tackled by organisations within the voluntary sector often include:

  • discrimination or inequalities on the basis of characteristics such as race, gender, sexual orientation, age, mental health, physical abilities, and so on
  • inaffordable housing
  • food insecurity
  • domestic violence
  • climate change

The work of the voluntary sector is particularly important as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and the cost-of-living and inflation crises.

According to the UK’s National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO), use of voluntary sector services rose during the pandemic, and demand for charity support continues to increase, while resources are becoming increasingly limited. In fact, the NCVO says that the new cost-of-living crisis “will affect every charity – whatever their size or cost.”

The NCVO also reports that the voluntary sector contributes about £20bn to the UK’s GDP, spending £56.9bn in 2019/20.

Examples of voluntary sector organisations

There are several different types of voluntary sector organisations.


Charitable organisations make up the bulk of the voluntary sector, and frequently provide a number of invaluable social services, support services, and care services.

Community groups 

Community groups are voluntary organisations that work to provide a public or local community benefit. For example, groups may organise social events for seniors or young people, or focus on community development.

Social co-operatives (co-ops)

Co-ops are organisations that are owned and controlled by their individual members in order to meet their collective needs.

Community interest companies (CICs)

A community interest company, or CIC, is part of the social enterprise sector. It is a limited company that’s set up to achieve social objectives and benefit a particular community, rather than private shareholders. 

Credit unions

A credit union is a financial institution – like a bank. Much like a co-operative, credit union are  owned and controlled by its members.


Foundations are organisations set up for the purpose of providing grants to charitable or philanthropic projects and similar social change endeavours. 

Religious and faith-based organisations

Churches, temples, and mosques all fall under the voluntary sector umbrella, working on behalf of their communities.

Culture and recreation groups

Youth, arts, and sporting groups are not-for-profit organisations that are typically run by volunteers.

Parent teacher associations

Parent teacher associations, or PTAs, are volunteer organisations that aim to enrich schools for children.

Non-governmental organisations (NGOs)

NGOs can operate locally or globally, and typically focus on large-scale issues such as environmental or social care advocacy, or human rights work.

Who funds the voluntary sector?

While the voluntary sector focuses on its social objectives rather than turning a profit, its organisations still usually need funds to operate. In the United Kingdom, this funding usually comes in from a few different sources, such as:

  • charitable donations from the public
  • grants from foundations and trusts, as well as local and national governments; this also includes the National Lottery Community Fund, which distributes more than £600m a year to community organisations
  • government contracts that award funds to organisations that deliver public services
  • investments and other assets, such as property
  • charity shops

What is the difference between the public sector and the voluntary sector?

There is some overlap between the public sector and the voluntary sector – for example, both aim to serve the public or their communities – however, the voluntary sector falls outside of government jurisdiction and control, and its organisations are focused entirely on their social purpose. 

For example, the NHS is a public sector organisation offering statutory services, while The Health Foundation is a voluntary sector organisation: an independent charity that offers grants to frontline healthcare providers, services, and carers, and carries out research and policy analysis to help improve healthcare within the NHS.

What do voluntary sector workers do?

The voluntary sector relies heavily on its volunteers, but larger organisations often need to hire paid staff to cover specific roles. Voluntary sector organisations, particularly larger or growing ones, are usually structured to include a board of trustees, paid staff to manage operations, as well as volunteer workers.


Trustees are volunteers who help guide the direction of a charitable organisation to ensure all actions align with its vision, purpose, and goals. Trustees are also responsible for safeguarding the organisation’s assets and overseeing strategic decision-making.

Paid staff

Voluntary sector employees are responsible for the day-to-day operations of their organisations. The National Council for Voluntary Organisations recently reported that almost 1 million people worked in the voluntary sector last year, with the sector’s workforce growing by 3% in 2022 – the fastest growth of any sector over the past decade.


Volunteers are the heart of the voluntary sector. According to the UK’s National Council for Voluntary Organisations, 16.3 million people volunteered with a group, club, or organisation in 2020/21. Additionally, more than half of the population volunteered their time informally at least once during the pandemic.

Help shape the voluntary sector

Lead change in the public or voluntary sector with the 100% online Master of Public Administration (MPA) at the University of York. This flexible MPA programme has been designed for professionals in public and non-profit organisations who want to make a positive impact on improving public service provision and public life.

One of the core modules on this flexible master’s degree explores the partnerships that help deliver public services. You will examine the opportunities and challenges created by the partnerships between the public and the private or voluntary sectors, and gain the knowledge and skills to critically evaluate public-private partnerships in their many guises.

Public finance: an explainer

Public finance is the term used to discuss income, spending, and debt within the public sector. 

In the United Kingdom, the public sector is formed of governments at all levels – including national and local governments – as well as their publicly funded institutions and services, such as the National Health Service (NHS), the police and armed forces, and welfare benefits such as state pensions. This means that the economic resources that the public sector generates, allocates, and manages are public money and assets. 

It is one of the key functions of government to appropriately manage its public finances and effectively allocate its resources. Governments and other public institutions are accountable to the people they represent and serve for the decisions they make, whether it’s how they generate revenue, how they determine their public expenditures, or how they manage public debt.

The scope of public finance

Setting taxes 

In the United Kingdom, only the government can propose legislation to raise public revenue through taxation, or to use public funds to pursue policy objectives. These proposals are made to Parliament, which then needs to approve the legislation. Once approved, government ministers can carry out their policies within their relevant departments. HM Treasury, meanwhile, is responsible for overseeing the individual department budgets that are allocated from the central budgets it administers. 

What is the difference between public finance and taxation?

Public finance is often conflated with taxation, but while they’re indelibly linked, the two are not the same. Taxation is a method of generating public finance funding. For example, in the UK, taxation can include levies such as personal income tax, national insurance contributions, corporation tax, and the value added tax (VAT) on goods and services.

Public finance, on the other hand, considers how best to use and invest the funds raised through tax revenue – as well as through other government revenues, such as investments, borrowings, commercial enterprises, and partnerships – in the interest of individuals, businesses, and wider, macroeconomic stability.

Choosing what to spend public money on

Decisions on how public money is spent are made by ministers appointed by the Prime Minister. Ministers – each have a direct responsibility for a governmental department andare responsible for the public policy direction and business within their departments. They are, effectively, the most influential policymakers in government, but are also required to heed the advice of their accounting officers with regards to conducting public business, and must gain parliamentary approval for government spending.

It’s worth noting that ministers’ policies are typically aligned with the direction, priorities, and – more generally – their party’s policy platform or manifesto. Crucially, the party that forms the government is democratically elected by citizen voters on the basis of its manifesto.

Other potential influencers of policies and public spending include:

  • think-tanks
  • unions
  • the media
  • special interest groups
  • wider public opinion

Determining how best to fund and deliver public services

Ministerial departments have considerable control over how they distribute and allocate their budgets. However, while they are largely free to organise, manage, and spend their resources, they are also subject to:

  • parliamentary standards
  • the direction of their ministers
  • adequate controls and reporting arrangements

Within each ministerial department is a departmental board, chaired by the senior minister, that leads on how to fund and deliver public services. These plans are then put into motion by departmental staff and civil servants. 

Additionally, HM Treasury is tasked with ensuring that departments raise revenue and spend resources only within agreed limits, and for setting the ground rules for the administration of public money.

Distributing income

Income distribution occurs when public funds are transferred from one group or area to another. For example, money raised through taxation can used to fund:

  • state pensions
  • public education
  • infrastructure projects
  • healthcare
  • initiatives for tackling climate change
  • benefits programmes such as Universal Credit

Distributing income in this manner works to alleviate income inequality and ensure a good quality of life for all people. Economists typically explore income distribution through the lens of a country’s total gross domestic product (GDP), and how this is distributed among its people.

Stabilising the economy

Well-managed public sector finance is credited with helping to ensure economic stability and even economic growth.

For example, it can contribute to:

  • stable prices – rather than inflation – in key markets
  • lower interest rates
  • increased private investment and savings
  • reduced public debt, budget deficits, and associated interest
  • robust social programmes and social services that enhance health and well-being, and in turn allow for spending reductions in areas such as social care and healthcare in the long term

What are the principles of public finance?

The UK government’s HM Treasury outlines its principles for managing public resources in its Managing Public Money publication. These principles are:

  • honesty
  • impartiality
  • openness
  • accountability
  • accuracy
  • fairness
  • integrity
  • transparency
  • objectivity
  • reliability

The document goes on to say that these principles are carried out in the spirit of – and to the letter of – the law, as well as in the public interest, to high ethical standards, and achieving value for money. It also notes complementary guidance in the Financial Reporting Council’s (FRC) UK Corporate Governance Code, which applies to central government departments. Among others, the code’s principles include:

  • promoting long-term, sustainable success that contributes to wider society
  • ensuring that necessary resources are in place to meet objectives, and measuring performance against them
  • establishing frameworks for prudent and effective controls so that risk can be assessed and managed
  • effective engagement with, and encouraged participation from, stakeholders
  • workforce policies and practices that are consistent with agreed values

Finally, the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA) represents 14,000 members who work in public finance. CIPFA’s Standard of Professional Practice on Ethics is based on five principles:

  1. integrity
  2. objectivity
  3. professional competence and due care
  4. confidentiality
  5. professional behaviours

Help shape the future of public administration

Develop the skills to demonstrate public finance leadership with the 100% online Master of Public Administration (MPA) at the University of York.

One of the core modules on this flexible master’s degree is public finance, so you will examine how the decisions that governments make about public financial management – the revenue they raise and how this revenue is allocated in the form of public spending – are one of the core functions of government. An appreciation of this function is crucial for a full understanding of the role of government and the management of public services. Studying this module, you will develop an understanding of public finance decision making, including an examination of tax avoidance and public debt as major contemporary challenges.

The global crisis of public debt

With inflation reaching multi-decade highs, and growth forecasts slowing down, the global economy is on the brink of a debt crisis. Economists and financial experts are warning of a potentially prolonged period of ‘stagflation’ not seen since the 1970s, compounded by public spending and borrowing during the COVID-19 pandemic, energy crises, risk-averse investors, and ongoing war and conflict.

While no country is immune from economic downturns and recessions, emerging markets and developing economies (EMDEs) – which face greater vulnerabilities as a result of elevated inflation, high debt levels and weak fiscal positions – are at particular risk. Reuters reports that countries such as Sri Lanka, Egypt, Ghana and Pakistan have already called on the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for debt relief and support.

What is public debt?

Public debt, also referred to as sovereign debt, government debt or federal debt, is the amount of money that a country owes to lenders – outside debtors – who may be individuals, financial institutions, international organisations, businesses, or governments of other countries. It usually only accounts for national debt – and not debt owed by different municipalities or provinces – however definitions do vary between countries.

Public debt, generally speaking, often deals with mammoth sums of money. To offer some context, the United Kingdom general government’s current public debt status, provided by the Office for National Statistics was £2.365tn at the end of the first quarter of 2022. The UK general government deficit – its net borrowing – was £15.8bn in the same quarter, equivalent to 2.6 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP).

What are the main types of public debt?

Public debt can take a variety of forms.

Internal and external debt

When a government takes a loan out with individuals, banks or financial institutions, or businesses within its own nation – in the home currency – it is referred to as internal debt. External debt, therefore, is money – in foreign currency – borrowed from international organisations or governments in other countries.

Productive and unproductive debt

Money that is borrowed for income-generating initiatives – such as developing electricity or solar energy plants – is considered ‘productive’ debt. However, there is also ‘unproductive’ debt, where loans are taken out for activities such as funding wars.

Redeemable and irredeemable debt

Redeemable debts cover loans that have maturity dates or fixed future repayment dates. In contrast, irredeemable debts are those without fixed future repayment dates where governments do not have to pay regular interests.

Voluntary and compulsory loans

Voluntary loans occur when governments issue debt securities in order to raise funds. The opposite is a compulsory loan, where taxpayers are mandated to deposit money or people are bound to compulsory contributions in other ways.

Short-term and long-term debt

Borrowing can be short-term (where sovereign loans are paid back within one year), long-term (where sovereign loans are paid back in ten years or more), or medium-term (somewhere in between).

How does public debt affect the economy?

When faced with budget deficits, governments borrow and accrue public debt in order to pay for services or in an attempt to grow their economies.

Running, building and developing countries does not come cheap. As such, governments may need to borrow money to fund infrastructure development and public welfare programmes, or funnel cash into public sector enterprises. In such instances, public debt can be used to public benefit, stimulating economies and delivering much-needed services and development.

However, according to finance specialists, The Balance, when debt reaches 77 per cent or more of gross domestic product (GDP) it begins to slow economic growth. Countries engaged in excessive borrowing – where the debt-to-GDP ratio is unsustainable – find themselves in increasingly dangerous situations where national balance sheets grow ever-more precarious. Failing to address long-term fiscal challenges weakens the economy, reduces access to capital, stymies investment, fails to produce the conditions for growth and puts nations in greater risk of economic crisis. As governments use more funds to pay off interest costs, less is available for public investment and public services – a significant factor in the UK’s crippling cuts across healthcare, benefits, and education over recent years.

Further risks associated with public debt

The International Monetary Fund list various risks encountered in sovereign debt management.

  • Market risk, which involves changes in market prices and can impact interest rates, exchange rates, commodity prices and debt servicing.
  • Rollover risk, which is the risk that debt will have to be rolled over at unusually high cost or cannot be rolled over at all.
  • Liquidity risk, which refers to the costs or penalties faced in trying to exit a position when transaction numbers or market depth decreases, as well as liquid assets diminishing in value.
  • Credit risk, which relates to non-performance by borrowings regarding loans and other financial assets, or by a counterparty on financial contracts.
  • Settlement risk, which is the potential loss a government could face as a result of failing to settle.
  • Operational risk, which encompasses transaction errors, inadequacies and failures in internal controls, systems and services, reputation risk, legal risk, security breaches, and natural disasters.

How can public debt be addressed?

Public debt must be adequately managed if it is to remain at sustainable levels. There are a variety of methods that national governments can explore in a bid to minimise ballooning debt, however most options involve negative impacts alongside the positives. Common interventions include:

  • avoiding war and reducing military spending
  • raising the retirement/pension age
  • broadening the tax base to increase tax revenue
  • implementing ‘debt ceilings’
  • stimulating economic growth
  • adjust land value tax

Explore key issues relating to public debt, monetary policy and financial sustainability

Want to learn more about how central government spending impacts the wider economy?

If you’re pursuing senior leadership positions in the public administration sector – and are keen to influence decision-making and strategic planning to support healthier public finances – choose the University of York’s online Master of Public Administration (MPA) programme.

With flexible study to suit you, you’ll gain the key skills and in-depth understanding to make a difference in this vital field. Designed with a multi-dimensional approach to the industry in mind, modules will introduce you to policy process, organisational and human contexts, and the wider environment that dictates public service demands and limitations.

The democratisation of public services: an explainer

The democratisation (or, ‘co-production’) of public services is the process of developing and delivering public services and policies in partnership with citizens.

It is, effectively, a more democratic way of designing services within the public sector and civil service. Through co-production and participatory policy-making, citizens can help shape the services they use and that affect their lives, rather than simply being passive beneficiaries of schemes and programmes. Citizens work with public sector professionals, often from a variety of civil services and policy areas, to help create these enhanced services.

Public involvement can occur, partially or completely, in virtually all stages of the collaborative, democratic public service process, including during:

  • commissioning
  • design
  • delivery
  • service implementation, including governance and public management
  • assessment and improvement

What are the benefits of democratisation of public services?

There are a number of positive potential outcomes when democratising public services and service delivery. For example, it can:

  • reinforce the idea that every individual can have an impact within a civil society, and can help reduce citizen apathy
  • shine a brighter light on large-scale issues such as inequalities, human rights, sustainability, and other topics that are better understood through the lived experience of individuals
  • reduce corruption in public services, according to the World Bank.

Other benefits can include the following.

Better relationships

Co-production can strengthen the relationships between frontline public service providers, such as the police, educators, and healthcare professionals, with the public and local communities that they serve. This can help reignite public servants’ passion for their jobs, and can also help humanise them for the everyday people who might otherwise see civil servants as simply their impersonal job descriptions or yet another cog in the machine of central government. 

Better programmes

The democratisation of public services can help iron out any potential wrinkles in public policies and services before they’re implemented. This is because public servants who aren’t on the receiving end of the services they provide can, at times, have trouble spotting issues that might be quickly apparent to service users with an experienced point-of-view. 

Better processes

Breathing new life into existing services through the input, experiences, and ideas of new voices is a huge benefit to the process of developing new public services and policies. The National Organisation for Local Economics (CLES), for example, argues that organisations, individuals, trade unions, and so on, don’t have to be part of the government to be passionate about public services – and they can offer new and different methods for realising social, economic and environmental value within new programmes and policies.

Better value

According to the Civil Service College, co-production can be more cost-effective than conventional methods of service design and delivery. This is because money is less likely to be wasted on ineffective services that fail to meet people’s needs. The college  also argues that by ensuring all services offered are effective and genuinely helpful, this has a knock-on, preventative benefit that further reduces costs. This is particularly noticeable in the health sector. As an example, it points to effective addiction services. If these services are readily available and effective, over time this will decrease the demand – and cost – for overdose treatments.

What role does the government play in the democratisation of public services?

Governments at all levels – from local government to the national level – can harness the power of citizen participation in their service provision.

The New Economics Foundation (NEF), for instance, worked with local authorities to develop a model for co-production, with the aim of supporting the design and delivery of social services that:

  • focus on commissioning for long-term outcomes that make a real, positive impact on people’s lives
  • promote co-production by working in partnership with service users to bring in new resources and create more effective services
  • promote social value, with the triple bottom line – social, environmental, and economic outcomes – placed at the heart of service commissioning.

NEF also provides detailed guidance to governments on its approach to co-production. This includes support with:

    1. Insight. Developing outcomes that are important and helpful to people can be supported by identifying people’s needs and aspirations, as well as the assets and resources that are required.  
    2. Planning. Creating support and activities that meet people’s needs requires an appropriate framework and process. 
    3. Delivery. This includes monitoring and evaluating the value of public services, creating service assessments with the people who use services, and gathering insight and data to improve – and adapt – public services. This can happen through coaching, peer assessment, mystery shopping, customised self-reflection tools, and so on.

What is the difference between democratisation and privatisation?

Democratisation is an increasingly attractive option for governments in recent years. It safeguards the public interest and offers a more democratic alternative to the privatisation of public services.

When privatising public services or other assets of public ownership, governments have a number of options. For example, they might sell public assets to private owners outright, or decide that outsourcing the development and management of public services to a contracted, private third party – rather than managing the service publicly in-house – is preferable.

Privatisation is often the option of choice for governments looking to save – or make – money, but it also creates a gap between the democratic government, the public service, and the service users. 

Democratisation, on the other hand, puts people at the heart of the public service process. While privatised public services might be required to consult the public on new or amended services through forums, social media, or other methods of generating respondents, democratised public services understand their public value, and have the public embedded within the process every step of the way.

What is the difference between the public and private sector?

The public sector consists of all of the organisations that are managed by the government. In the UK, this includes institutions such as the NHS, the police and armed forces.

The private sector consists of organisations that are owned and managed by businesses or individuals. Everything from Amazon to local pubs are private sector organisations.

While co-production is more relevant to the public sector, it’s worth noting that third sector organisations – such as charities and community associations – can also democratise their services, and even private sector organisations can apply the principles and interventions of co-production within their processes and practices.

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One of the core modules on this flexible master’s degree is about the co-production and democratisation of public services, so you’ll have the opportunity to learn more about how citizens can be enabled to influence public policy decision-making around public services, and how to ensure that the delivery of services meets the demands of users – both critical objectives in a democratic society.

You’ll also learn about public-private partnerships in public services, and how the delivery of public services involves a partnership between the public and the private sector, which creates both opportunities and challenges.

National policy and its role in a greener, more sustainable future

Infrastructure shapes both the human and natural worlds. It’s the backbone and foundation on which communities and nations are built: the energy that powers our businesses, the clean water pumped into our homes, and the road and rail networks that allow us to travel with ease. Thoughtful, ethical and sustainable infrastructure has the ability to improve our quality of life, creating new places and ways in which to live and work.

Nonetheless, infrastructure on a national scale cannot, and should not, proliferate unchecked. Its development involves critical considerations, from the communities it serves, to its impacts and effects – both in the short and longer-terms, to the material and methods used, to maintenance, and much more besides. Policy, regulation, expertise and comprehensive planning and risk management all play an important role, particularly in negating, and even reversing, the impacts of climate change.

The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recognises and outlines “the interdependence of climate, ecosystems and biodiversity and human societies” in its Summary for Policymakers report. It calls for the assessment of climate change impacts and risks, as well as adaptation, set against “concurrently unfolding non-climatic trends” such as rapid urbanisation, land and ecosystem degradation, biodiversity loss and unsustainable consumption of natural resources. So, how can a nation develop responsibly and sustainably? What factors must be taken into consideration when mapping industrial strategy? Who has the power to make decisions on this scale?

What is national policy?

National policies are statements that contain principles and broad courses of action taken by national governments regarding specific objectives.

Their main purpose is to define and guide decision-making efforts to achieve a desired outcome through government policy and plans – in a bid to ensure any decisions have an aggregate positive impact on a national level. For example, a government may wish to improve biodiversity by considering future land use, or lower emissions and improve air quality by developing its public transport networks, or tightly govern waste management in a bid to support a healthier ecosystem. National policy should:

  • establish a planning system and framework for development
  • protect and preserve natural resources
  • shed light on the environmental impact assessment of planned projects
  • ensure regulatory standards are adhered to
  • avoid any adverse impacts on an environmental or social level

In the UK, national policy must relate to climate change efforts – both in mitigation and adaptation. As well as explaining the reasoning behind their proposed outcomes, policies must explain how they:

  • factor into sustainable development
  • integrate with existing policies
  • account for safety and technology issues
  • address any adverse impacts
  • detail actual and projected capacity and demand. 

Where necessary, policies should also pinpoint specific locations affected in order to create a guideline and roadmap that can support future investment and planning decisions.

Planning Act 2008

The UK Infrastructure Planning Commission was borne out of the Planning Act 2008. As well as making provisions for the Commission’s functions, it contains guidelines and thresholds for the authorisation and development of infrastructure. The Act also governs town and country planning and is designed to “make provision about the imposition of a Community Infrastructure Levy.”

UK national policy statements (NPS)

In the UK, there are 12 NPS relating to different areas of nationally significant infrastructure projects and their future development. NPS must be formed from a democratic process – consisting of public consultation and parliamentary scrutiny – before it can become designated policy. In this way, any examining authorities can make recommendations to the Secretary of State.

The NPS, by category, are:

  • Energy: Overarching Energy; Fossil Fuels; Renewable Energy; Oil and Gas Supply and Storage (produced by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)
  • Transport: Ports; National Networks; Airports (produced by the Department for Transport)
  • Water, waste water and waste: Hazardous Waste; Waste Water; Water Resources (produced by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs).

Any significant development of infrastructure throughout England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland must adhere to the NPS.

What is the difference between national policy and local policy?

The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) underpins the UK’s environmental, social and economic planning policies, and covers topics including:

  • business
  • environment
  • economic development
  • transport
  • housing.

The NPPF must inform any planning applications and decisions relating to local and neighbourhood plans; where plans and developments have taken its rules into account, developments can be approved without delay. A local planning authority (LPA) makes the ultimate decision in deciding to grant or refuse planning permission – such as building and development work – in a given area. Local authorities also create a development plan; this occurs every six years and details planning policies and use of areas by local authorities. For example, a plan might contain aspects such as upgrading of amenities, improvements to roads or regeneration and renewal of unused or obsolete areas. Planning applications in the local area are then cross-referenced with the plan, with permission generally granted only if the plans are in line with the development plan.

The UK government publishes planning practice guidance on the website to support individuals and organisations with their interpretation and adherence to the NPPF. There are various categories – many of which relate to ensuring a greener, sustainable future – including:

  • air quality
  • climate change
  • effective use of land
  • environmental impact assessment
  • flood risk and coastal change
  • green belt
  • land stability
  • natural environment
  • renewable and low-carbon energy
  • strategic environmental assessment
  • tree preservation orders and trees in conservation areas
  • waste.

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Develop the skills to analyse and navigate complex public management issues, and lead the way in making a positive impact on both public life and public service provision. Designed for leaders across public, non-profit and third-sector organisations, your studies will draw on service development and enhancement – with a focus on sustainability – across networks and partnerships. You’ll study the public process, the organisational and human context of public service delivery, and the wider social, political and economic environment through which public service demands and constraints are shaped. 

What are the features of modern governance?

Modern governance is good governance achieved with modern tools. By utilising new technologies and methods, governing bodies can gain deeper insights and develop new processes that deliver better governance and better overall results for their organisations.

Effective use of new technology

Whether it’s through automating processes or utilising new systems and platforms, governing bodies that undergo a digital transformation can often gain a competitive advantage or establish themselves as a leader in their fields or sectors.

Making the most of information and data

Modern governance relies heavily upon good data to spot issues, challenges, and new categories in terms of trends and market directions. Good data should also help inform decisions, strategies, policies, and responses in times of crisis or disruption.

Greater transparency

One of the most significant aims of modern governance is transparency. Information is easily accessible and understandable. Communication and conversations are two-way, and reporting is conducted regularly and objectively.

Robust risk and compliance management

Modern governing bodies are focused on safeguarding against a multitude of risks – no easy task in today’s complex world. Through policies, procedures, and other controls, modern governance works to mitigate cyber risk and cyber-attacks; protect strategic, financial, operational, and reputational functions; and, ensure all potential issues are identified, analysed, mitigated, monitored, and reported on. There is also a strong focus on compliance, with internal audits, quality assurance practices, and strict adherence to legislation – and other relevant codes – all firmly cemented within the organisation.

Inclusive environments

Diverse, inclusive, and collaborative environments are a growing necessity in modern governance. From the governing body itself, through all levels of an organisation, good modern governance calls for diversity in race, gender, and age, but also in terms of backgrounds and skills – and research continues to show that diverse organisations are more creative and more decisive.

What is good governance?

Good governance should be an important area of focus for any organisation, whether it’s a public body, an international not-for-profit organisation, or a private business or corporation. Through good governance, an organisation maintains and safeguards its integrity and ethics, its policies and procedures, and its reputation and performance.

Good governance informs decision-making, enables strong relationships with stakeholders, and sets the organisational or corporate culture. It also ensures that funds are used appropriately, employee standards – and human rights – are respected, and operations are free from corruption and fraud.

Good governance in the United Kingdom

In the UK, corporate good governance is ensured through the Financial Reporting Council’s UK Corporate Governance Code. The code steers relationships between companies, shareholders, and stakeholders, and “promotes the importance of establishing a corporate culture that is aligned with the company purpose, business strategy, promotes integrity and values diversity.”

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development also offers a number of resources and guides on the topic of good corporate governance.

Finally, the Chartered Governance Institute UK & Ireland works to ensure “effective and efficient governance and administration of commerce, industry and public affairs”.

Examples of best practice in governance


Petition and social change non-profit website has been lauded for its transparency. The organisation shares its financial information, roadmaps, and strategy in its annual impact report, and also publishes details about its diversity and inclusion.


Inclusive Companies, an organisation that aims to drive inclusion through innovation and best practice, recently awarded Capegemi UK its top prize in the Inclusive Top 50 UK Employers List. Contributing to this win was Capgemini’s active inclusion programme, which engages all of its staff “in a conscious culture and mindset change for inclusion.”

Risk management 

CIR Magazine’s Risk Management Awards recently awarded AECOM, a multinational infrastructure consulting firm, and the West Midlands Combined Authority, with a Public Sector Risk Management Award, recognising the organisations’ collective and collaborative commitment to risk management.

What is a governance deficit?

Governance deficits occur when those governing – whether it’s a company, organisation, government, or another body – are not equipped to cope with the myriad challenges it faces, and cannot govern effectively. This deficit can look like a lack of:

  • information, which should inform everything from an organisation’s environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) to its marketing efforts
  • technology, which can facilitate transformational change in everything from everyday business processes to C-Suite (the name for leadership teams made of a CEO, CFO, COO, and so on) leadership
  • adaptability, whether it’s responsiveness to a crisis or an emerging trend in the market
  • security, from cyber safety to financial health
  • connectivity or collaboration, such as consultation on white papers, governance practices, or even participation in industry events, podcasts, and so on
  • visibility, whether it’s of board members or corporate directors within the organisation, or even an online presence – for example, on social media applications such as LinkedIn.

Deficits in areas such as these can have serious consequences, such as increased risks – and increased costs.

In fact, the Diligent Institute has reported that “governance deficits across over 12 public companies have cost shareholders more than $490bn (US Dollars) in value in the year following the financial crisis. At the same time, good governance has equipped companies to surpass their peers by 15%.”

Modern tools and resources to support good governance

Diligent is a digital modern governance tool. Effectively an app for boards and board members, it aims to promote good governance by managing risks, supporting audits, enabling compliance, and so on. It is the world’s largest governance, risk, and compliance (GRC) software-as-a-service (SAAS) provider, with one million users across 25,000 organisations and 130 countries. Diligent CEO Brian Stafford says that there is “a gap between people in the middle of the organisation who are data experts, and people at the top who want the right information at their level, to be able to help with pressure testing. We’re putting that all together for our clients.”

The Modern Governance Summit

The Diligent Corporation recently hosted a hybrid in-person and virtual event for governance, risk, compliance, audit, and ESG professionals.

Free data tools, such as Google Analytics

Data and information is key for organisational leaders, boardrooms, and anyone in an executive role. While some of this data may require market research or dedicated system providers, some of it is easily obtained for free. Website data, for example, is a crucial area of information for organisations and can be accessed for free in real time via Google Analytics.

Communication platforms, such as Slack or Microsoft Teams

Open communication supports transparency, inclusive environments, and information-sharing – all important elements of good governance. 

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As part of your studies, you’ll explore good governance. For example, one of your key modules is in regulatory governance – an inevitable part of modern governance that many businesses undermine, but is crucial in delivering on social protection, safety, and quality assurance standards.

What is foreign policy?

Foreign policy is the mechanism national governments use to guide their diplomatic interactions and relationships with other countries. A state’s foreign policy reflects its values and goals, and helps drive its political and economic aims in the global arena. Many foreign policies also have a strong focus on national and international security, and will help determine how a country interacts with international organisations, such as the United Nations, and citizens of other countries.

Foreign policies are developed and influenced by a number of factors. These include:

  • the country’s circumstances in a number of areas, including geographically, financially, politically, and so on
  • the behaviour and foreign policies of other countries
  • the state of international order and affairs more widely (for example, is there war or unrest? Are there trade alliances to take into consideration?) 
  • plans for advancement, such as economic advancement or technological advancement

Guided by foreign policy, diplomats and diplomatic bodies can work across borders to tackle shared challenges, promote stability, and protect shared interests.

A nation’s foreign policy typically works in tandem with its domestic policy, which is another form of public policy that focuses on matters at home. Together, the two policies complement one another and work to strengthen the country’s position both within and outside its borders.

Examples of foreign policy

The United Kingdom

Foreign policy in the United Kingdom is overseen by Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, which is led by the Foreign Secretary.

Recent priorities for the UK’s foreign office have included imposing sanctions on Russia due to its ongoing conflict with Ukraine, and introducing a new Northern Ireland Protocol Bill. The UK has also continued its ongoing action against the regime in Syria. 

Following the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union (EU) – made official in 2020 – UK policymakers have been focused on negotiating new trade agreements with international partners.

The United States

American foreign policy is overseen by the U.S. Department of State, which says its mission is to “protect and promote U.S. security, prosperity, and democratic values, and shape an international environment in which all Americans can thrive.”

Domestic bills and legislation connected to foreign policy are managed by the United States House Committee on Foreign Affairs, a standing committee of the U.S. House of Representatives that has jurisdiction over matters such as foreign assistance, HIV/AIDS in foreign countries, and the promotion of democracy. It also has six standing subcommittees that oversee issues connected to human rights practices, disaster assistance, international development, and so on in different regions of the world, such as Asia or the Middle East.

Recent events in American international affairs have included ending its war in Afghanistan, and affirming its support for a two-state solution to the ongoing conflict between Palestine and Israel. 


Chinese foreign policy consists of the following elements:

  1. Maintaining independence and state sovereignty.
  2. Maintaining world peace.
  3. Friendly relations.
  4. Enhanced unity and cooperation between developing countries.
  5. Increasing its opening and modernisation efforts.

China’s foreign policy also stipulates that China not engage in diplomatic relationships with any country that formally recognises Taiwan, which China does not recognise as a separate nation.


Nigeria’s foreign policy is lauded for strengthening its position and power regionally and internationally. Its objectives are enshrined in its constitution, and include:

  • the promotion and protection of the national interest
  • the promotion of African integration and support for African unity
  • the promotion of international co-operation for the consolidation of universal peace and mutual respect among all nations, and the elimination of discrimination in all manifestations
  • respect for international law and treaty obligations, as well as seeking settlement to international disputes by negotiation, mediation, conciliation, arbitration, and adjudication
  • the promotion of a just world economic order

What is the difference between foreign policy and international relations?

International relations is a discipline of political science and can be considered one of the social sciences – it’s an area of academic study that examines the interactions between countries. Foreign policy, on the other hand, is a working template that guides how one country interacts with others.

Foreign policy in practice: impacts and consequences

How does foreign policy influence international politics?

Because foreign policies are developed to protect a nation’s interests and influence its dealings with other nations on the world stage, they have a direct impact on world politics. But it’s also fair to say that international affairs help shape foreign policies, too. 

There are also a number of international organisations and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that directly impact international relations and foreign policies, such as:

How does foreign policy affect the global economy?

Foreign policies can have a huge impact on the economy, both at home and abroad. While this is partially because policies often focus on the economic advancement of their nations, it’s also because almost all aspects of any foreign policy will have a knock-on effect on the wider global financial system.

For example, Foreign Policy magazine reported earlier this year that the war in Ukraine that was triggered by Russian President Vladimir Putin has already changed the world’s economy. Meanwhile, the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the EU has had an ongoing financial impact and consequences for trade relationships throughout Europe (and even farther afield), while the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown measures taken in various countries has had a lasting effect on global supply chains and finances.

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Additionally, this postgraduate degree includes a module in policy research, enabling you to critically reflect on the strengths, limitations, and appropriateness of different research approaches and techniques, and helping you to acquire the skills needed to evaluate and commission research for public policy and administration contexts.

For further information about entry requirements, tuition fees, application deadlines, and independent research, please visit the programme page.

What is social and public policy?

Social and public policy is an interdisciplinary and applied social science that aims to critically analyse societal approaches to real-world issues. 

Through a combined application of political science, sociology, economics, law and philosophy, it investigates government action in response to social, demographic and economic development. The purpose of social and public policy is to understand the impacts of policy-making on welfare states and their communities.

There are notable disparities between the two fields. Public policy refers to the actual system of laws and regulatory measures underpinning government action. It comprises resource allocation within the areas of civilian life that impact society at large (such as crime, defence and education). 

Social policy, on the other hand, is more specifically concerned with the administration of social services and welfare. It draws on sociology to address the social context of policy-making, highlighting issues such as growing health disparities, class division, economic inequality and racial discrimination.

In terms of their interrelation, experts differ in opinion. Some believe social policy to be a subset of public policy, while other professionals consider them to be two separate, competing approaches for the same public interest. Overall, social policy is deemed more holistic than public policy.

What are the different types of public policy?

There are three primary types of public policy: regulatory, distributive and redistributive.

Regulatory public policy

This type of public policy ultimately provides the framework for ministerial rulemaking, setting the standards of what is lawful and what isn’t allowed in a bid to protect economic and social welfare. Regulatory public policy establishes the guidelines for developing, implementing and enforcing a system of public protections impacting the economy and civil society, and places restrictions on business practices in aims of keeping the market efficient and fair. Examples include minimum wage legislation and consumer safety law.

Distributive public policy

This type of public policy concerns legislation surrounding government funding into public goods or services that provide for the common good. Examples of this include funding of educational facilities and access to healthcare (such as the free distribution of the Covid-19 vaccines).

Redistributive public policy

These policies involve redistributing government funds from one group of people to a different group of people, to aid the more disadvantaged within society. Examples include progressive taxation systems, welfare distribution programs (such as Universal Credit) and student loans.

What is the purpose of social policy?

Social policy is concerned with how a government meets human needs. As a field of study, it considers the initiatives impacting quality of life (spanning health services, social care, housing, education and financial aid) and critically examines the policies, regulations and financial distribution that shapes the provision of welfare.

In doing so, social policy addresses the social and economic conditions that define barriers to access – such as poverty, age, health, disability and disadvantage. It notes the ways in which policies can be divisive and reinforce privilege and social inequality, with race, gender, class, sexual orientation and economic status acting as contributing factors to social cohesion and division.

Examples of social policy include an examination of antidiscrimination law, equal opportunity employment law, unemployment benefits, pensions, welfare initiatives (such as food stamps) and affordable housing initiatives. 

As British society has become more diverse, divided and disparate, social policy continues to expand fields of interest, including: 

  • regional inequalities;
  • the impact of climate change on vulnerable communities (such as those living in urban developments); 
  • government approaches to immigration and citizen’s rights; 
  • minimum living wages and modern slavery; 
  • education and social mobility; 
  • the policing of the poor.

At a top level, social policy also addresses how governments respond to global challenges (such as migration, pandemics and globalisation). As the divisions between the most privileged and vulnerable members of the community continue to grow, the case for social policy becomes ever more imperative to the survival of a fair and functioning society.

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