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Public works are the construction or engineering projects carried out by the state on behalf of the community.


"Public works" is a concept in economics and politics. The term public infrastructure refers only to the infrastructural capital involved in these activities.

An internal improvement is some constructed object that augments a nation's economic infrastructure; examples include airports, canals, dams, dikes, pipelines, railroads, roads, tunnels, and artificial harbours.

Public works is a slightly broader term, it can include such things as: mine, schools, hospitals, water purification and sewage treatment centers. Municipal infrastructure, urban infrastructure and rural development are often used interchangeably but imply either large cities or developing nations' concerns respectively. The terms public infrastructure or critical infrastructure are also used interchangeably but suggest the inclusion of some facilities like hospitals, banks and concerns like national security and terrorism which are not under the mandate of local officials alone.

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).

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 Canadamarker (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 acting on behalf of the state, in return for the provision of labour. These activities have the aim of enhancing employment or producing an asset (either physical or social), with the overall objective of providing social protection.

As a study by the Overseas Development Institute has concluded, the majority of public works initiatives in developing countries offer either food or cash in return for physical labour and are known as food-for-work (FFW) 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.

Utility of investment

While it is argued that internal improvements 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. Since it is politically unpopular for governments to use public revenues to bail out private firms that lose money, many times the preferred alternative is to have governments undertake unprofitable projects directly. Consequently, almost all significant infrastructure in the U.S., including the Transcontinental Railroad, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the Interstate Highway System, were created through federal investment (often employing private subcontractors). Since the disappearance of the Berlin Wallmarker, large public works are more and more being associated with the opening of internal frontiers, as in the case of the Erie Canal and Trans-Siberian Railway.[ ]

Corruption, cost overrun and demand shortfall

Cost overruns and demand shortfalls frequently haunt public works projects. 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 cost and demand estimates. Public works projects can be prone to corrupt practices in the form of waste, crony contracts and theft of funds and materials. Generally a system of public tenders and construction supervision by reputable engineering or architectural firms is used to reduce the risk of corrupt practices.

According to the research conducted at the Aalburg University, 86% of the public works often end up with cost overruns. Peculiars found in the research were that
  • technically difficult projects did not ended up more exceedings of the budget than technically easy projects
  • projects in which more people where directly and indirectly affected by the project turned out to be more susceptible to cost overruns
  • the projects generally did not learn from similar projects attempted in the past

Sources and further reading

See also


  1. The TrustTheVote Project
  2. List of public projects with cost overruns
  3. Natuurwetenschap & Techniek Magazine April 2009
  4. Project peculiars]

External links

Some public works communities

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