When it comes to public works, one size definitely does not fit all, so defining the term becomes problematic. Even APWA members have trouble arriving at a common definition. Because of the multi-faceted, ever-evolving nature of public works, we may never arrive at a final definition but, for now, the following definition seems appropriate:
Public works is the combination of physical assets, management practices, policies, and personnel necessary for government to provide and sustain structures and services essential to the welfare and acceptable quality of life for its citizens.
In the real world there is no one, ideal structure for a public works operation. Even though some public works services are considered “must haves” in every community, they may not be readily identified on a city organizational chart, or delivered in the same way, or to the same level, from one community to the next. In fact, some municipalities may not even have a department named public works.
Although some functions are not common to every community, each of them will have such things as water, utilities, and trash collection—unquestionably. What IS in question is by whom they are delivered. The traditional concept of public works is that governmental units provide the services, own the facilities, and are usually funded through taxation. However, the situation often is not that clear-cut today, and other models also exist, which include publicly owned corporations and partial outsourcing. It’s not uncommon for the private sector to be involved in delivering public works services as well. For instance, some communities may own a fleet of trash collection vehicles, but other communities will contract out that service to private companies. It’s also common for a municipal engineering division to plan and design large construction projects but to contract out the actual construction work.
Another public works model—complete outsourcing or contracting out with a privately owned corporation—is somewhat more controversial and considered “borderline” on whether it actually fits the definition of government provision of public works services. Although the services are delivered on behalf of government, the high degree of private sector control and/or risk tends to discount them as valid public works in some people’s consideration.
Quite often, public utilities—such as water, gas, electricity, telephone, mass transportation, and communication facilities—are not owned and operated by a government agency. However, even if utilities are not owned by a governmental unit, they still are said to be “affected with a public interest” and are subject to a degree of government regulation from which other businesses are exempt. In such situations, the utilities often operate as a monopoly in their markets, under a license or franchise, and are required to render adequate service at reasonable prices to all who apply for the service. Although it is not always feasible or cost effective for a municipality to own utilities, the absence of these essential services would be injurious to public health and welfare. Therefore, whether publicly or privately owned, the services themselves still can be considered public works.
The United States has approximately 19,400 municipalities of varying sizes, and Canada is home to nearly 3,700 more. In each community, whatever its size, there are needs common to all human beings that must be met through the provision of public works services. These needs are met on a daily basis by visionary, values-driven, and hardworking men and women who provide and sustain public works services in the best interests of their communities.