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For financial and strategic reasons, public and semi-public construction clients increasingly depend on private parties to carry out public service delivery. They subcontract operational responsibilities to private parties while remaining socio-politically responsible for ensuring public values. Public administration literature mainly addresses the importance of procedural and performance values in safeguarding public values. However, safeguarding the quality of the built environment also requires a focus on product values. In this study, we aim to increase the understanding of the meaning and significance of public values in the daily practice of public construction clients and identify the challenges they face in commissioning these seemingly opposing values. A set of semi-structured interviews with the public administrators of a variety of public and semi-public construction client organizations in the Netherlands shows that both internal and external factors influence the collaborative practices between clients and contractors. This causes a value shift from an emphasis on procedural values to managing performance and product values, indicating that clients need to take on a wider view on public values. Six main public value dilemmas were found that complicate the task of developing an open, transparent and sustainable long-term client–contractor relationship. The current contractual system, however, lacks the flexibility to facilitate this product-based value view in construction.