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The public sector is the part of economic and administrative life that deals with the delivery of goods and services by and for the government, whether national, regional or local/municipal.
Examples of public sector activity range from delivering social security, administering urban planning and organizing national defenses.
The organization of the public sector (public ownership) can take several forms, including:
- Direct administration funded through taxation; the delivering organization generally has no specific requirement to meet commercial success criteria, and production decisions are determined by government.
- Publicly owned corporations (in some contexts, especially manufacturing, "state-owned enterprises"); which differ from direct administration in that they have greater commercial freedoms and are expected to operate according to commercial criteria, and production decisions are not generally taken by government (although goals may be set for them by government).
- Partial outsourcing (of the scale many businesses do, e.g. for IT services), is considered a public sector model.
A borderline form is
- Complete outsourcing or contracting out, with a privately owned corporation delivering the entire service on behalf of government. This may be considered a mixture of private sector operations with public ownership of assets, although in some forms the private sector's control and/or risk is so great that the service may no longer be considered part of the public sector. (See Britain's Private Finance Initiative.)
In spite of their name, public companies are not part of the public sector; they are a particular kind of private sector company that can offer their shares for sale to the general public.
The decision about what are proper matters for the public sector as opposed to the private sector is probably the single most important dividing line among socialist, liberal, conservative, and libertarian political philosophy, with (broadly) socialists preferring greater state involvement, libertarians favoring minimal state involvement, and conservatives and liberals favoring state involvement in some aspects of the society but not others.