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Who powers the public sector?

Delve into the characteristics and working conditions of public servants delivering essential goods and services and the public sector's impact on addressing labour market inequalities.

The public sector is a cornerstone of our societies and economies. It ensures the continuous provision of essential goods and services such as education, healthcare, utilities, transport, road infrastructure, and mail delivery, to name a few, while also playing a key role in promoting growth and social justice. At the core of these functions are public sector workers, who serve our communities by guaranteeing the operation of vital institutions.

As we approach World Public Service Day, we reflect on the current state of public sector employment, looking across the globe at the characteristics of our public servants and their working conditions. 

Size and scope of the public sector

Size of the public sector

Just over one-tenth (11 per cent) of the world’s employment is in the public sector according to the latest ILO estimates1ILO calculations based on data from the ILO Harmonized Microdata Repository; refer to this document for details. . The share of public sector employment varies from one region to the next, increasing with the level of national income. For instance, 16 per cent of employed people work in the public sector in high-income countries, compared to only 7 per cent in low-income countries. The Arab States region stands out with a particularly large public sector compared to other regions, where it accounts for 25 per cent of employment.

The current context, marked by a recent pandemic, vulnerability to climate change, the cost-of-living crisis, and conflicts, has led to a sustained demand for public goods and services. However, most governments have not increased the share of employment in the public sector to meet this demand. Over the past decade, the proportion of public sector employment declined in 58 out of 94 countries with data available. Among the 34 countries where the share of public sector employment increased, the median rise was a mere 1.3 percentage points.

Economic activities covered by the public sector

Public servants are responsible for delivering essential services that directly impact the lives of individuals and communities. This includes education, healthcare, transportation, social services, and public safety. Unsurprisingly, most public sector employment in the world (52 per cent) is in non-market services, compared to only 15 per cent in the private sector. Public sector workers are also present in market services (20 per cent versus 32 per cent in the private sector), agriculture (12 per cent versus 27 per cent) and manufacturing (9 per cent versus 15 per cent).

The distribution of public sector employment by sector varies by region and national income level. For example, 72 per cent of public sector employment is in non-market services in high-income countries, compared to only 54 per cent in low-income countries. Conversely, manufacturing (for example, the manufacture of food products, wearing apparel and textiles) accounts for 31 per cent of public sector employment in low-income countries, but only 18 per cent in high-income ones.

Against the backdrop of the recent pandemic, the role of key workers providing essential goods and services gains relevance. In high-income countries, 25 per cent of key workers are employed in the public sector. This can translate into more robust support structures and resources for essential services during shocks and emergencies. Contrariwise, in low-income countries, where public sector employment for key workers is notably lower at 3 per cent, the strain on already stretched public services can exacerbate vulnerabilities and hinder effective responses.

Occupations of public sector workers

Teaching professionals are a cornerstone of public sector employment. On average, 70 per cent of teaching professionals (sub-major group 23 in ISCO-08) work in the public sector and this profession made up the largest share of employment in the public sector in the vast majority of countries. When that was not the case, occupations in the armed forces (groups 01-03) or protective services workers (group 54) often made up the largest share of public sector employment.

Beyond teaching and defence roles, other noteworthy occupations with at least one quarter of employment in the public sector include chief executives, senior officials, and legislators (group 11); health professionals and associates (groups 22 and 32); legal, social, and cultural professionals and associates (groups 26 and 34); and clerks and other clerical support workers (groups 41 and 44). These occupations collectively underscore the diverse spectrum of roles crucial for the functioning of public services.

Demographic profiles of public servants

Understanding the demographic characteristics of public servants is crucial for assessing the diversity and inclusivity of the public sector workforce.

The age distribution of public sector workers is relatively similar to that of the private sector, except for youth. On average, young persons (aged 15 to 24) represent only 6 per cent of public sector employment, compared to 16 per cent of private sector employment. This can be partly attributed to the higher educational attainment among public sector workers, which means they spend more time in school before entering the workforce. The share of public sector workers with an advanced education is higher than private sector workers in almost all 139 countries with available data, with differences of at least 20 percentage points in 101 of these countries.

In examining the employment of persons with disabilities across the public and private sectors, there are far fewer countries with available data, making it difficult to draw conclusions. Persons with disabilities have lower employment rates overall, and their shares in the public sector also tend to be small. However, there is some evidence in the European Union that persons with disabilities are better represented in public administration (a subset of the public sector) than in other sectors. This indicates that the public sector can provide important employment opportunities for persons with disabilities.

Gender patterns

Globally, women face significant barriers to accessing paid work and are thus under-represented in employment. Indeed, women are only 39 per cent of the world’s private sector workers. However, women are much better represented in public sector employment, accounting for 47 per cent of all public servants.

Related to this, globally, the share of public sector employment is higher for women (13 per cent) than for men (10 per cent). This holds true in all regions except Africa. The difference is most pronounced in the Arab States and Europe and Central Asia regions, where the share for women is about 7 percentage points higher than the share for men. In high-income countries, the share of public sector employment is 20 per cent for women compared to 13 per cent for men.

Equal access to decision-making positions, especially in the public sector, is essential to achieving decent work and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Indeed, diversity and inclusion at high decision-making levels trickles down creating greater impact. However, when it comes to gender parity, women are still underrepresented at all levels of decision-making worldwide. In 2024, 26.9 per cent of national parliament seats around the world were held by women (SDG indicator 5.5.1).

The glass ceiling persists, both in the private and public sectors. Nonetheless, the female share of managerial positions is higher in the public sector (32 per cent) than in the private sector (27 per cent). This holds true in all regions except Africa and all income groups except low-income countries. The female share in other occupations was also higher in the public sector across all major groups except service and sales workers. Also noteworthy is that gender-based occupational segregation in the public sector is similar to that of the private sector, with high concentrations of women in care-related occupations for example.

The public sector can act not only as a driver of employment creation, but also of gender parity, women’s labour integration, and inclusion.

Working conditions in the public sector

Public sector jobs are typically considered to be secure and stable. Unsurprisingly, most public sector workers in the world (77 per cent) hold employee jobs. However, this still means that almost a quarter of public servants are self-employed, including as own-account workers or dependent contractors. The share of public sector workers who are self-employed changes considerably across regions and income groups. For instance, it ranges from a mere 3.6 per cent in high-income countries to as much as 37.2 per cent in lower-middle-income countries.

Also, the public sector seems to give solid guarantees of formal jobs. In almost all countries with data, the informality rate is higher in the private sector than the public sector, with the unweighted average difference being 50 percentage points and the median difference being 54 percentage points. The difference increases with the level of national income. That is, in low-income countries with a higher prevalence of informality, the effect of the public sector in protecting workers against informality becomes stronger.

Meanwhile, there is a misconception that public servants normally work fewer hours than those employed in the private sector. Average weekly hours of persons employed in the public sector are higher in 47 out of 115 countries. Nonetheless, the share of employed persons working excessive hours, defined as 49 or more hours per week, was lower in the public than private sector in most countries (107 out of 124). 

When it comes to earnings, there is a notable premium for public sector workers in 69 of 81 countries, with median hourly earnings in the public sector being 36 per cent higher than those in the private sector. While this could be attributed to the higher educational attainment and skill levels of public sector workers in many countries, it holds true for each of the occupational major groups.

Moreover, the gender pay gap is much less significant in the public sector. The median pay gap in the private sector is 12 per cent, compared to a median close to 0 in the public sector, underscoring the public sector’s role in promoting gender parity. The smaller gender pay gaps in the public sector are linked to the fact that the public sector pay premium is higher for women than for men in 66 of 81 countries with available data.

Concluding remarks

The public sector plays a central role in the provision of essential goods and services as well as in promoting growth, social cohesion, and communal well-being. It relies on its diverse workforce spread across economic activities and occupations. Additionally, the public sector appears better equipped to address typical labour market inequalities, such as overall access to employment, access to managerial positions, and disparities in working time and pay. As such, the public sector can act as a lighthouse for other employers, guiding the promotion of sustainable and inclusive growth with equal opportunities for all workers.

Definitions, sources, and limitations of statistics on public sector employment

Public sector employment refers to persons employed by government units and non-market corporations. It includes all government departments, agencies and institutions that are financed and controlled by government authorities that provide public goods and services, such as central, state, and local government entities, as well as social security funds. It also includes entities that are owned or controlled by the government such as state-owned enterprises and public corporations. These are engaged primarily for the public good rather than profit. Examples include public hospitals, public schools, and other entities that provide services either for free or at prices that cover only a part of their costs.

The data presented in this blog refer to public sector employment statistics collected from household surveys – notably labour force surveys. That is, the employment statistics on public sector rely on respondents indicating the institutional sector in which they are employed (i.e. private versus public) and are thus subject to respondent accuracy. It may be difficult to accurately capture public sector employment for persons in non-profit institutions controlled and/or mainly financed by governments. It will depend on the individual’s perception of the institutional affiliation or nature of their work.

There are other sources of employment statistics for the public sector, such as administrative records and national accounts. Notably, the System of National Accounts (SNA) serves as the foremost international framework for defining and capturing data on public sector employment. While statistics under this framework offer consistency and comparability across countries and over time, there are limitations when it comes to disaggregations. Unlike household surveys, which offer detailed breakdowns encompassing sex, age, occupation, education, contract type, tenure, and more, SNA-based statistics lack such granularity, limiting their use for this type of analysis. On the other hand, SNA statistics can be disaggregated by level of government to provide information on local and regional government workers, which is not generally available in household surveys.

Users should note that public employment statistics derived from the SNA framework and those obtained from household surveys may differ, sometimes significantly.

Authors

  • Marie-Claire Sodergren

    Marie-Claire is a Senior Economist in the Data Production and Analysis Unit of the ILO Department of Statistics. She oversees data collection through the annual ILOSTAT questionnaire and is a key ILO focal point for SDG reporting. She spearheaded the development of the ILOSTAT portal and currently oversees content creation and serves as editor-in-chief for the blog. Previously, she held key roles at the U.S. Bureau of Labour Statistics, including Supervisory Economist and acting Chief of the Division of International Labor Comparisons.

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  • Rosina Gammarano

    Rosina is a Senior Labour Statistician in the Statistical Standards and Methods Unit of the ILO Department of Statistics. Passionate about addressing inequality and gender issues and using data to cast light on decent work deficits, she is a recurrent author of the ILOSTAT Blog and the Spotlight on Work Statistics. She has previous experience in the Data Production and Analysis Unit of the ILO Department of Statistics and the UN Resident Coordinator’s team in Mexico.

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