What is the public sector?

Despite slight recent improvements in the UK’s economic outlook – and economists’ predictions that gross domestic product will not fall quite as far as previously feared in 2023 – the current situation is far less stable. Economic growth remains in a fragile position, reinforced by the ongoing cost of living crisis, political instability and further budgetary constraints on public spending.

These challenges are integral to the ongoing and future provision of high quality, accessible and widespread national public services led by the public sector.

What is the public sector?

Any industries – and the jobs created within them – that the central government operates or owns are referred to as the public sector. It’s a broad sector, spanning a wide variety of industries and impacting most aspects of public life and livelihood. As its name suggests, the public sector provides a range of public services. They are funded by taxpayers, generally operate on a non-profit basis, and are designed to support people and communities at every level of society. It aims to provide essential services and support to all citizens and uphold individual and collective wellbeing and prosperity.

What constitutes the public sector differs between countries. As well as central government departments, government agencies, and public bodies, the main branches of industry within the UK public sector include:

  •   education, including early years settings, primary schools, secondary schools, colleges and academies, universities and higher education institutions, and other public education providers
  •   emergency services, including fire departments, ambulance trusts and police services
  •   healthcare, including the NHS and hospital trusts, GP surgeries, dentists, state-funded health services and clinical commissioning groups (CCGs)
  •   social care and social services, including food banks, financial aid, probation, housing and other care services
  •   public utilities, including gas, water, electricity and waste management services
  •   law enforcement, including police services, prisons and public sector legal services
  •   armed forces, including national defence services such as the British Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force
  •   local government, including local authorities, councils and other service providers
  •   finance, such as the Bank of England
  •   transit infrastructure, including the development, maintenance and expansion of roads, bridges, airports and public transportation networks
  •   culture and heritage, including institutions such as the British Museum.

There are also a number of privately operated public services, such as housing associations and care homes.

The civil service is a part of the public sector that is associated with ‘the Crown’ and being an employed ‘Minister of the Crown’. Only 1 in 12 public sector employees is classed as a civil servant and the majority work in government services and departments. Parliament is entirely separate to the civil service and those who are employed by Parliament are not civil servants.

Are there differences between the public and private sectors?

While the public and private sectors often work in partnership with one another, there are distinct differences between the two in several areas:

  • Aim – the public sector’s focus is on improving the lives of citizens on a non-profit basis. In contrast, the overriding aim of private companies is to drive revenue and profit.
  • Employment – while there is much overlap between the industries and job roles found within both the public and private sectors, the private sector is far larger and so offers greater job opportunities. In the UK, private sector employees number approximately 27 million, whereas public sector employees number around 5.3 million. Public sector wages are primarily paid for by taxes, while private companies pay wages out of generated income. As such, they are often based on performance and therefore less stable.
  • Ownership – the approximately six million private sector businesses are owned by either individuals or privately-owned firms, and have no affiliation with the government. Some publicly-owned ventures may transfer into private hands if government spending is reduced or the government decides to downsize the ‘state.’
  • Finances – Public bodies and businesses are generally tax-funded and tend to be more stable as a result. Conversely, the private sector relies on money generated by the businesses themselves through the sale of private goods and services, asset sales or through winning investment.
  • Industries – many of the industries are broadly similar, and partnerships between public and private sector are prevalent (for example, private security firms that work for the government, or private care homes that are government-funded). One leading differentiator between whether an industry is public or private is the competition element; competition related to ‘natural monopolies’ such as water supplies and power infrastructure would not be in the best interests of the public, and therefore largely remain public. In contrast, the retail sector – in which competition thrives – is exclusively privately owned.

There is also a ‘third sector’ – the voluntary or not-for-profit sector. Sitting between the public and private sectors, it operates outside of government control but is also not focused on generating profit like the private sector. Charities constitute the largest single category within this sector.

What are the advantages of working in the public sector?

While the number of job roles may be fewer, the public sector offers many advantages to those who work within it.

As the provision of public goods and services is government-owned, one of the greatest benefits of public sector roles is improved job security. Tied to this, work-life balance tends to be better because of fixed, structured hours, while benefits packages, such as bonuses and pension schemes, tend to be more comprehensive and protected. Many public sector businesses have a greater number and range of training and career progression opportunities, linked to targeted, stringent policies that focus on employee development and wellbeing.

Plus, with many jobs in the public sector focused on developing, maintaining and improving public services, roles are often very purpose-driven and rewarding.

Rise to the unique challenges found in the public and non-profit sectors

Study issues of sustainability, diversity and global citizenship linked to public sector organisations – and work towards a better shared future – with the University of York’s online MBA Public Sector Management programme.

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