Public works

Public works (or internal improvements historically in the United States)[1][2][3] are a broad category of projects, financed and constructed by the government, for recreational, employment, and health and safety uses in the greater community. They include bridges, parks, roads, municipal buildings, dams, railroads, schools, hospitals, beaches, and other, usually long-term, physical assets and facilities. Though often interchangeable with public infrastructure and public capital, public works does not necessarily carry an economic component, thereby being a broader term.



Public works is a multi-dimensional concept in economics and politics, touching on multiple arenas including: recreation (parks, beaches), aesthetics (trees, green space), business (goods and people movement), law (police and courts), neighborhood (community centers, social services buildings). Essentially, it represents any constructed object that augments a nation's physical infrastructure such as airports, canals, dams, dikes, pipelines, and others.

Municipal infrastructure, urban infrastructure, and rural development usually represent the same concept but imply either large cities or developing nations' concerns respectively. The terms public infrastructure or critical infrastructure are at times used interchangeably. However, critical infrastructure includes public works (dams, waste water systems, bridges, etc.) as well as facilities like hospitals, banks, and telecommunications systems and views them from a national security viewpoint and the impact on the community that the loss of such facilities would entail.

Furthermore, the term public works has recently been expanded to include digital public infrastructure projects. The first (US) nationwide digital public works project is an effort to create an open source software platform for e-voting (created and managed by the OSDV).[4]

Reflecting increased concern with sustainability, urban ecology and quality of life, efforts to move towards sustainable municipal infrastructure are common in developed nations, especially in European Union and Canada (where the FCM InfraGuide provides an officially mandated best practice exchange to move municipalities in this direction).

Public works programmes

A public works programme (PWP) is the provision of employment by the creation of predominantly public goods at a prescribed wage for those unable to find alternative employment. This functions as a form of social safety net. PWPs are activities which entail the payment of a wage (in cash or in kind) by the state, or by an Agent (or cash-for work/CFW). One particular form of public works, that of offering a short-term period of employment, has come to dominate practice, particularly in regions such as Sub-Saharan Africa. Applied in the short term, this is appropriate as a response to transient shocks and acute labour market crises.[5]

Utility of investment

While it is argued that capital investment in public works can be used to reduce unemployment, opponents of internal improvement programs argue that such projects should be undertaken by the private sector, and not the public sector, because public works projects are characteristic of socialism. However, in the private sector, entrepreneurs bear their own losses and so private sector firms are generally unwilling to undertake projects that could result in losses or would not develop a revenue stream. Governments will invest in public works because of the overall benefit to society when there is a lack of private sector benefit (a project that will not generate revenue) or the risk is too great for a private company to accept on its own.

Cost overrun and demand shortfall

Cost overruns and demand shortfalls frequently haunt public works projects.[6] The main causes of cost overrun and demand shortfall are optimism bias and strategic misrepresentation (Flyvbjerg et al. 2002, 2005). Reference class forecasting was developed to curb optimism bias and strategic misrepresentation and thus arrive at more accurate estimates of costs and demand.[7]

According to research conducted at the Aalborg University, 86% of public works projects end up with cost overruns. Some unexpected findings of the research were that:

  • Technically difficult projects were not more likely to exceed the budget than less difficult projects
  • Projects in which more people were directly and indirectly affected by the project turned out to be more susceptible to cost overruns
  • Project managers generally did not learn from similar projects attempted in the past[8][9]

Generally contracts awarded by public tenders will include a provision for unexpected expenses (i.e. cost overruns), that typically amount to 10% of the value of the contract. This money is only spent during the course of the project if the construction managers judge that it is necessary, and typically the expenditure must be justified in writing.

See also

Individual programs:

Sources and further reading


  1. ^ Carter Goodrich, Government Promotion of American Canals and Railroads, 1800-1890 (Greenwood Press, 1960])
  2. ^ Stephen Minicucci, Internal Improvements and the Union, 1790–1860, Studies in American Political Development (2004), 18:2:160-185 Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/S0898588X04000094.
  3. ^ John Lauritz Larson, Internal Improvement: National Public Works and the Promise of Popular Government in the Early United States, University of North Carolina Press, 2001. ISBN 978-0-8078-4911-8.
  4. ^ "The TrustTheVote Project". 15 May 2009. Retrieved 6 January 2010. 
  5. ^ "A typology for Public Works Programming". Overseas Development Institute. December 2008. 
  6. ^ List of public projects with cost overruns[dead link]
  7. ^ Flyvbjerg, B., 2008, "Curbing Optimism Bias and Strategic Misrepresentation in Planning: Reference Class Forecasting in Practice." European Planning Studies, vol. 16, no. 1, January, pp. 3-21.
  8. ^ Natuurwetenschap & Techniek Magazine April 2009
  9. ^ Project peculiars[dead link]

External links

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

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  • public works — noun plural Date: 1606 works (as schools, highways, docks) constructed for public use or enjoyment especially when financed and owned by the government …   New Collegiate Dictionary

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  • Public Works Loan Board — The Public Works Loan Board (PWLB) was established in 1793 to provide loans to public bodies from the National Loans Fund. It today provides loans to local authorities of all types in Great Britain, primarily for capital projects, but also as a… …   Wikipedia

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