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Public services is a term usually used to mean services provided by government to its citizens, either directly (through the public sector) or by financing private provision of services. The term is associated with a social consensus (usually expressed through democratic elections) that certain services should be available to all, regardless of income. Even where public services are neither publicly-provided nor publicly-financed, for social and political reasons they are usually subject to regulation going beyond that applying to most economic sectors .
Public services tend to be those considered so essential to modern life that for moral reasons their universal provision should be guaranteed, and they may be associated with fundamental human rights (such as the right to water). An example of a service which is not generally considered an essential public service is hairdressing.
In modern, developed countries the term public services usually includes
A public service may sometimes have the characteristics of a public good (being non-rivalrous and non-excludable ), but most are merit goods, that is, services which may (according to prevailing social norms ) be under-provided by the market. In most cases public services are services, i.e. they do not involve manufacturing of goods such as nuts and bolts. They may be provided by local or national monopolies, especially in sectors which are natural monopolies.
They may involve outputs that are hard to attribute to specific individual effort and/or hard to measure in terms of key characteristics such as quality. They often require high levels of training and education. They may attract people with a public service ethos who wish to give something to the wider public or community through their work and are prepared to work harder for less pay as a result. (John Kenneth Galbraith has looked at the role of such "public virtue" in economic growth.)
Historically, the widespread provision of public services in developed countries usually began in the late nineteenth century, often with the municipal development of gas and water services. Later, other services such as electricity and healthcare began to be provided by governments. In most developed countries such services are still provided by local or national government, the biggest exceptions being the US and the UK, where private provision is more significant. Nonetheless, such privately-provided public services are often strongly regulated, for example (in the US) by Public Utility Commissions .
In developing countries public services tend to be much less well developed. Water services, for example, may only be available to the wealthy middle class. For political reasons the service is often subsidised, which reduces the finance available for expansion to poorer communities.