The public sector comprises organisations that are owned, operated or funded by the government, rather than private companies or individuals.
Funded through taxes and other forms of government revenue, the public sector isn’t driven by profit in the same way that private sector organisations are. Instead, the public sector is:
- Responsible for serving the public and ensuring that people can rely upon its services when they need them.
- Regulated by laws that safeguard public interest, and ensure public funds are spent responsibly.
- Guided by principles such as equity and fairness.
The public sector operates across several industries, and its organisations have an important impact on the economy and on society more widely. This is because the public sector provides essential infrastructure and services to the people who need them while also providing significant job opportunities.
In the United Kingdom, for example, public sector staff span local government to public bodies such as the NHS. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), there were an estimated 5.80 million employees in the public sector in December 2022, compared to 27.04 million employees in the private sector. The public sector figure is on the rise, too, being 34,000 (0.6%) more than in September 2022, and 84,000 (1.5%) more than in December 2021.
Public sector industries
There are several industries that have a significant public sector presence. This includes:
Public sector healthcare ensures that all people in the United Kingdom have free access to essential health services, such as doctor surgeries and hospitals. Funded through general taxation and National Insurance contributions, public sector healthcare is widely believed to be a basic provision with a direct, positive impact on people’s well-being and the wider social environment.
Much like healthcare, free, accessible public schools are available to young people regardless of personal factors such as gender or socioeconomic status. Institutions of higher education, such as some universities, are also considered to be part of the public sector sphere when receiving public money for research funding or teaching.
The public transportation industry plays a vital role in the functioning of modern society, ensuring that both goods and people can move safely and reliably. It includes public transit systems as well as the authorities and organisations that invest in infrastructure.
Safety and defence
The aim of public military and law enforcement agencies – such as the police service, secret intelligence service, and other emergency services – is to ensure that people can live their lives safely and securely..
Public sector organisations
There is a diverse array of organisations within the public sector. A few examples include:
The National Health Service (NHS)
The NHS is one of the best-known examples of a public sector organisation within the UK. Under its umbrella are publicly funded doctor surgeries, dental practices, hospitals, care homes and other healthcare providers. It offers services including:
- Mental health therapies.
The NHS is also one of the largest public sector employers in the UK. In December 2022, it employed an estimated 1.92 million people, an increase of 17,000 (0.9%) compared with September 2022, and an increase of 53,000 (2.8%) compared with December 2021.
The civil service
The civil service is one of the key components of the UK’s central government. It is a politically neutral organisation that administers the government of the day, providing policy advice, implementing decisions and delivering public services.
The civil service is organised into different departments and government agencies that are responsible for specific areas of UK government policy. Some examples of these departments include:
- HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC). HMRC is responsible for collecting taxes and enforcing tax laws.
- Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). DWP is responsible for welfare policy and the administration of benefits, including state pensions, disability benefits and jobseeker’s allowance.
- Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC). DHSC is responsible for healthcare policy and the NHS, as well as public health and social services such as social workers.
- Home Office. The Home Office is responsible for national security, immigration and border control, and law and order.
- Department for Education (DfE). DfE is responsible for educational policies for schools, colleges and universities.
- Ministry of Justice (MoJ). The MoJ is responsible for the justice system, including the courts, prisons and probation service.
- Department for Transport (DfT). DfT is responsible for transport policy, including roads, railways and aviation.
There were 515,000 employees in the civil service in December 2022, up 2,000 (0.4%) compared with September 2022, and up 8,000 (1.6%) compared with December 2021.
The armed forces
The British Armed Forces includes the British Army, Royal Air Force and Royal Navy. Their responsibilities include combat, peacekeeping, and humanitarian aid.
The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC)
The BBC provides impartial and independent informational, educational, and entertainment programming on television, radio and online. It is principally funded through a television licence fee paid by UK households.
The Bank of England (BoE)
As the UK’s central bank, the Bank of England is responsible for securing banknotes and regulating banks and other financial firms in the United Kingdom.
Government Operational Research Service (GORS)
The Government Operational Research Service supports the wider civil service with “policy-making, strategy and operations in many different departments and agencies.”
What is a public-private partnership?
Public-private partnerships (PPPs) are agreements or collaborations between government organisations and private sector companies that are struck to help deliver public services and infrastructure projects.
These partnerships aim to leverage private-sector expertise to deliver public projects more efficiently and effectively. A private-public project partnership will typically see private sector businesses designing, building, financing, and overseeing day-to-day decision making on PPP projects in exchange for payments made by the government.
The same is largely true for PPPs used to deliver public services, with examples ranging from the management of certain healthcare services to water supply and waste management.
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