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What is the public sector?

Public sector

It is the sector of the economy that is, to a greater or lesser degree, controlled by the state. It comprises the machinery of government, including the armed forces, civil service, police and other public servants, and any business enterprises in public ownership.

Where have you heard about the public sector?

Comparisons between the public sector and the rest of the economy – in terms of efficiency, working conditions and other matters are a perennial topic of discussion around the world. The cost and benefits of public-sector activities are similarly debated.

What you need to know about the public sector.

Every organised society will have a public sector of some sort, however rudimentary. Workers within these public sector organisations are paid using a portion of the taxes collected by their Government. In 19th Century Europe, few public sectors expanded beyond the police, armed forces, revenue collectors and the postal service. This grew enormously in the 20th Century, with education, health and environmental protection added to the state's responsibilities and governments round the world buying or establishing nationalised industries in areas ranging from rail and air transport to coal mines, steel works and even, in Britain's case, the Thomas Cook travel company. Many countries have since sold these concerns in a process known as privatisation.

Find out more about the public sector.

The public sector is an important part of the economy. To learn more about its main counterpart, see our definition of the private sector.

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