CAIRN.INFO : Matières à réflexion

1 Today many large groups, through awareness, for reasons of image, or as a result of pressure, incorporate ideas about sustainable development. For-profit public services do not escape this trend. However, the latter have an advantage in this area compared with other firms: public service missions already incorporate concerns that are close to those included in the notion of sustainable development, such as spatial planning, or their social actions. Moreover, these service providers often develop ideas on sustainable production. Public services therefore represent a favourable environment for the philosophy of sustainable development.

2 These service activities are particularly innovative in relation to sustainable development, not only in their production processes, but also as part of their public service missions. The aim of this article is to analyse the innovations implemented to reconcile the different spheres of sustainable development, economic, social and environmental. At the theoretical level, we will rely on the conventionalist approach to reveal the conflicts between the spheres. At the practical level, our results rely on an empirical study of different for-profit public services.

3 For-profit public service networks can be defined as service providers which deliver a for-profit provision of services. Their service production process is based on a large industrial back-office or on heavy infrastructures (e.g. technical networks such as for gas or electricity providers). They can also depend on social networks such as the post offices network and railway stations. A part of the services delivered by those activities is based on public service missions and is therefore often linked to the notion of universal service [1] (defined as a right of access (or a right of connection) to service networks) but those services are also sometimes based on specific missions of social cohesion decided by the organization. The supplier of the service can be a public or a private organization.
By the nature of their activity and their history, public services appear to be legitimate actors of sustainable development (first part). The integration of sustainable development is therefore understood in a broad time horizon, from their primary mission of spatial planning up to the recent awareness of environmental protection (second part). Some innovations of these activities are implemented as part of sustainable development (third part).

Activities conducive to the integration of sustainable development

4 For-profit public services are by their nature faced with some of the structural dilemmas that exist between the three areas of sustainable development (economic, social and environmental).

5 On the one hand, by reconciling public service missions with their profitability constraints, many public services set the “economy” sphere against the “society” sphere. Governance is at the heart of public service missions. In particular, the notion of solidarity belongs to the enterprise culture. Through their activity, these organizations have in fact allowed the population to access water, electricity, postal networks, etc. Today they support some poor people in accessing these basic requirements through financial aid. It was just one step to move from national equity to intergenerational solidarity, which leads managers of La Poste to consider that sustainable development will be the modern formulation of public service[2]. Furthermore, public services are also the first involved in spatial planning missions, which they sometimes undertake in partnership with towns.

6 In addition and more generally, a conceptual convergence can be highlighted between the definition of “services” and the definition of “sustainable development”. Indeed, services and sustainable development target the same temporal horizon (Djellal & Gallouj, 2009; Gadrey, 2008). It is even more obvious for public services. Their service provision could have long-term effects such as social cohesion; just as “sustainable action” for “sustainable development”; “services” are often based on a coproduction process; just as “sustainable development” advocates “collective action”; and finally the notion of “equity” is close to the notion of “citizen participation” as they are based on general interest.

7 On the other hand, taking account of the environment when expanding their activity, these organizations set the “environment” sphere against the “economy” sphere. Public service missions depend on the fundamental needs of society [3]. These include access to natural and energy resources such as gas, electricity and water supplies. Public services in the energy field (GDF, EDF), to which we can by extension add certain private providers which have public missions, such as water distribution, also affect existing issues by the nature of their activity, between, on the one hand, the environmental sphere and the economic sphere (the notion of sustainability) and, on the other hand, the society sphere and the environmental sphere, in other words, the protection of natural resources and supplying users with natural resources.
Therefore as well as economic concerns, social and environmental, concerns are, by their nature, public service network concerns. In the rest of this article, most of the examples that we use come from the case study that we carried out. The detail of these case studies is set out in the following box (Box 1).

Box 1: Research methodology

The first part of the data (around 40 interviews) comes from a study that was carried out earlier (Merlin, 2006). The aim of this research was to analyse the innovation processes of a for-profit public service. The second part of the empirical data comes from 3 semi-structured interviews conducted in a firm that includes a human network, La Poste (the French Postal Service), and a firm from the energy field, GDF, conducted at the beginning of 2008. The aim of these interviews was to confirm the types of innovation relating to sustainable development, identified during the first phase of data collection, and to locate changes in sustainable development indicators. The interviews lasted between thirty minutes and one hour. They were recorded and re-transcribed with the permission of the people questioned. Three categories were addressed. A first category concerned the occurrence of sustainable development principles in the firm, a second category referred to the choice, establishment and development of sustainable development indicators. A third category related to innovations implemented as part of sustainable development. These interviews were complemented by the study of official documents (Sustainable development report, Communication on progress, downloadable from public service network sites).

The social concerns of the public services

8 Public service networks have long been interested in the social impact of their activity, insofar as, on the one hand, these service activities require the recruitment of a significant number of staff [4], and on the other hand, these firms often have a national dimension, which gives services a civic and a social dimension.

The concern with employee working conditions

9 Employee working conditions were quickly taken into account by public service networks. These are often quoted as a reference, as they have to recognize certain rights for employees, firstly in terms of rights relating to the statute of state employee. Today, the notion of corporate social responsibility (CSR), and pressure from trade unions encourage the public services to continue these already long-standing practices.

10 Social indicators are rewriting this story. Thus, certain social indicators were put in place when corporate social reports were drawn up at the end of the 1970s in France. Some of these indicators were then naturally integrated into the report on sustainable development. The social indicators concerning health and safety at work (work-place accidents, accident when traveling, number of days lost by agents), were listed, or staff movements (work-force, number of strike notices or strike days per agent, rate of absenteeism). To these indicators of health and working conditions have been added diversity indicators (percentage of women employed, number of disabled people), as well as efforts made on training or promotion. [5] In this way, some authors estimate that 80% of information requested as part of the NER [6] was already included in the corporate social report (Igalens & Joras, 2002). The new data mainly relate to the international organization of work (difficulties in recruitment, impact of variations in territorial activity and with sub-contractors).

Societal concerns relating to users-customers

11 The social concerns of network services can be identified from the notion of access to public service. Indeed, public service missions, and nowadays the notion of universal service, have been constructed around a right of access to the network service (Merlin-Brogniart, 2007). It is possible to separate out three kinds of access corresponding to this social, or even societal, mission.

12 The first kind of access identified, physical access to the network, emerged with the growth of the welfare state. The creation of local or national monopolies enabled firstly mass then individual then “universal” connection of the population to the network (Coutard & Pflieger, 2002). This first degree of geographical accessibility is fundamentally linked to the spatial planning mission: it consists of allowing distant geographical populations or the inhabitants of zones that are difficult to access to nevertheless benefit from services. This link became a social norm during the lifestyle urbanization movement. However, physical access is broader than just the physical link to the networks. In particular, it covers lonely people or those with low mobility (ex: the elderly) whose inability to get around excludes them from services. Local services are sometimes provided for these people. However, this access is at the limit of “basic” services, in the sense that the services proposed to resolve this kind of access can themselves represent a new service that can be requested independently of access to the basic service. For example, home services can be requested for time constraints rather than for mobility.

13 This principle of solidarity can be combined with the social dimension of sustainable development. Moreover, the re-organization of the network as part of spatial planning redraws the landscape on a long-term basis; therefore it also has an impact on the environmental dimension of sustainable development.

14 The second kind of access, access to tariffs, initially consisted of help in establishing a network, such as tariff standardization, or the different national funds for water or electricity. Access to tariffs is today transformed into help for people in financial difficulties. This form of access concerns populations that are underprivileged in terms of the low level of their income. It should be possible to establish access to services considered as essential in “reasonable conditions” at a price that can be unique and accessible by the greatest number. This access can be linked to the mission of citizens’ equality. It is also possible to resort to “social” tariffs for the categories of people concerned. Proposing services in reasonable conditions does not however mean that they are free. It relates more to the society sphere of sustainable development.

15 “Physical” and “financial” accesses are closely linked, insofar as geographical exclusion is linked to the cost engendered by serving and operating in this zone. The latter could result in an excessive tariff for users if mass equilibrium solutions were not devised.
The third kind of access is more recent, this relates to cognitive access. These problems of accessibility, although they have always existed, have only recently been formally taken into account by the public service networks. These accessibility problems are often the result of difficulties in understanding or of communication, linked to illiteracy or a poor knowledge of the French language. They can end up excluding some people from services. This final form of access is less official. However some public services, voluntarily or from necessity, give it a high status. This social mission is added to other missions, notably for service providers who operate a large human network (ex: SNCF, La Poste). It is about allowing people with cognitive difficulties to access services by deploying specific resources (advice, aid etc.). There as well, this kind of access relates to the social sphere. These kinds of access and the manner of responding to these change depending on socio-economic advances and innovations made to these activities as a response to these.

Environmental concerns

16 Environmental concerns are not explicitly included in the state’s public service missions, they are expressed in terms of continuity of service, or the supply of users, such as for example France’s energy security of supply missions for gas or electricity suppliers. It was, then, previously covered mainly by the public services whose core activity relates to the environment, in other words the water and energy services.

17 The environmental concern of the public services as a whole is more recent. Organizations whose activity is not directly linked to the environment expanded their environmental concerns from the 1990s. Most network re-organizations and some developments in production processes now, even if its scope is limited, often include ”industrial ecology” type reflections on the environment, in order to avoid wasting resources, or to better manage the lifecycle of a product. This reflection usually involves public service personnel [7].

18 The public services therefore straight away benefit from a certain legitimacy in terms of sustainable development, through their history and the corporate culture that is associated with it. Actions in favour of sustainable development are more easily accepted both by customers and by staff, as these concerns correspond to long-term values that are already promoted by these activities. The introduction of sustainable development principles has taken place in stages, from actions taken as part of territorial solidarity, towards the broader idea of sustainable development policies. We note that awareness of the values of sustainable development is fully in line with stakeholder theory. This theory which was brought into general use by Freeman (1984) and Caroll (1979, 1991) tries to understand the relationships that the company has with all the actors who are interested in the company’s activities. Just as introducing public service missions responded to a societal need, rewritten by the State, so the introduction of new sustainable development values (notably environmental) partly responds to the expectations of stakeholders in public services (citizen, State, supplier,…). However, the objective of this theory, which is to study which actors can legitimately intervene in the governance of the firm, is not our intention here. This theory also has the defect of reducing the firm’s responsibility to the responsibilities that are guided by its stakeholders.

From territorial solidarity to the criteria of sustainable development

19 The notion of sustainable development is not directly operational; but represents “a variable area of thoughts and practices” (Mancebo, 2006, p. 127). The history of incorporating sustainable development allows us to better understand the choices of public services concerning sustainable development. In these activities, establishing the principles of sustainable development is closely linked to their public service missions, and in particular to those of spatial planning. The integration of these principles also follows the stages for developing this concept at an international level.

Public services as part of a spatial planning policy

20 Changes in lifestyles have gradually led to an imbalance between supply and demand for network services. Rural depopulation has caused an excess of network services in rural areas, and has revealed a shortage of supply in urban areas. Changes in technologies have also greatly modified the notions of distance and of territory [8], leading to a “mobility revolution”, such as the TGV (Benoît et al., 2002), or changing the methods of service delivery (ex: remote procedures, consultation by internet). Faced with these changes, public service networks have re-organised their contact points, as much to improve physical accessibility (Mariotti, 2006), as hourly accessibility. This re-organization aims “to replace a facilities’ logic with a logic of use and access to services” (Theys, 2004, p. 45). Thus, spatial planning is involved in sustainable development by improving the spatial efficiency of the services offered.

21 Spatial planning has mainly been formalized and organized by the State. This question emerged in France from the nineteen seventies onwards as part of halting public service closures in rural areas. The policy of spatial planning and sustainable development was consequently set out in the law of June 25th, 1999. Most for-profit public services are involved in each of these strategic choices, through mass services [9] or through Plan contracts, signed with the State. There is strengthened cooperation between providers and elected representatives, thanks to projects that are more consensual and specific in terms of their execution [10] (Geron & Vandermotten, 2002), and less uncertain thanks to the increasing number of local experiments (Meny & Thoenig, 1989).

22 This spatial planning relies on a certain number of more or less innovative tools, such as partnerships between actors, public and private (Plan Contract, Convention, Partnerships, Charters and Labels), or tools that allow territories to be targeted, such as the development of “living areas” or of “living districts”. Performances in terms of spatial planning can be seen in sustainable development reports through indicators on the deployment of contact points (ex: presence of postal services and the nature of contact points), as well as by the development of Charters signed with semi-autonomous regions. To a certain extent, these new indicators allow the lack of local measuring and statistical evaluation instruments for sustainable development to be mitigated (Loinger, 2002).
Moving from a policy of spatial planning to that of sustainable development is made possible by the similarity of these two notions. Indeed, these two notions rely on relatively similar values [11]. Applying sustainable development is only possible with all territories supporting and participating in these values, because it is “at the level of the territories that the ambitions and the promises of “sustainable development” could find, or could not find, concrete expression” (Theys, 2004, p. 38, our translation). However, the notion of sustainable development is stricter than that of spatial planning. Indeed, sustainability in a given territory necessarily refers to social objectives, insofar as the objectives of territorial policies consist in reducing the inter-temporal or inter-territorial inequalities. On the contrary, some forms of development could endanger the development of a particular region. In this context, urban development policy would be closer to expanded sustainability (Zuindeau, 2000).

The stages towards sustainable development

23 For-profit public service networks include a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) strategy in an environment of international action. An evaluation of their sustainable development performance is achieved by the introduction of sustainable development indicators.

Formalizing a sustainable development policy

24 Public companies were amongst the first firms to support the principles of sustainable development and their construction (Marais and Reynaud, 2007) [12]. Sustainable development, defined in the Brundtland report (1987) as a development which “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”, was gradually integrated into the strategies of for-profit public services. In France, the Charter of public companies in favour of sustainable development (signed in 1999), initiated by Committee 21 and the French Commission for sustainable development, is an example of this awareness of sustainable development [13]. For-profit public services [14] also supported other principles of sustainable development, such as the nine principles on human rights, working conditions and environmental protection, introduced in the Global Compact, established in 1999. Many public services have also adopted the principles of GRI (Global Reporting Initiative), established in 1997 at the initiative of CERES and PNUE, which provides guidelines which allow sustainable development reports to be produced.

25 Moreover, the national or European regulatory authorities now encourage companies in this integration. The European Commission officially recognized CSR in 2001 when it published the green paper which recommended that the authorities should promote social and environmental practices. The NER law introduces an obligation for companies listed on the stock exchange to publish information relating to corporate governance and the environmental impact of the business in their annual report. This law has then been applied to some public services. As well as global agreements on sustainable development, public service networks sign agreements that are more specific in certain areas of sustainable development, such as GDF’s membership of AERES [15]; the Convention on the City and social cohesion, in 2006, the Public service charter in rural areas (2006), or Businesses for human rights (EDH) (2006).
Thus, sustainable development “missions” are established at several levels, at the local, sectoral, national, European, even global level, and are implemented either through coercion or through incentives (following the adoption of laws and directives), or by voluntary initiatives. This awareness of sustainable development in for-profit public service strategies also relates to the economic situation. Several public services have in fact had to face up to the increase in competition following successive waves of liberalization of all or part of their activity (La Poste [16], EDF, GDF [17]). Will this wave of liberalization have an impact on the incorporation of sustainable development policies? It appears that the liberalization of public services can be a determinant of the incorporation of sustainable development, particularly by having an impact on the speed of this integration. However, sustainable development is also a factor of differentiation in relation to competition. For example, developing a fleet of electric vehicles would enable us to avoid increasingly frequent legislation banning petrol-driven vehicles in city centres (as in the city of London), and thus allow postal service providers to beat foreign competitors who would not have the same environmental argument [18].

Innovations relating to the measurement of sustainable development

26 The majority of indicators and methods for managing sustainable development that are used by for-profit public services are based on existing instruments. This fact can be explained by the frequent call on the skills of external providers (consultancies, rating agencies) to produce their sustainable development policy or to evaluate their performance. The public services also use existing social and environmental standards [19]. This choice is also explained by most economic actors’ desire to improve the transparency of sustainable development policies by using universal indicators (cf. table 1) [20]. This makes it possible to compare companies.

Table 1

Examples of for-profit public service networks

Table 1
Process indicators Diagnostic and monitoring indicators Action plan Regulatory body “Universal” indicators Specific indicators “Universal” action plan Public Service Charter (La Poste, GDF, EDF, RATP, SNCF) Diversity Charter (La Poste, SNCF, GDF) ISO 14001 certification Product life cycle analysis (La Poste, GDF) GDF energy saving certificate GDF environmental footprint Sales of ethical products Corporate ethical purchasing Specific action plan Postal Observatory TERRAIN project with representatives of La Poste SNCF National Accessibility Charter SNCF Apprenticeship Charter Environment Fleet of vehicles kilometres traveled CO2 emissions Share of recycled paper Society Hours of training Rate of absenteeism Number of accidents Female staff Economy Consolidated turnover etc. Environment Use of bulk cargo (La Poste) Stockpile of leftover grey cast iron (GDF) Number of electric locomotives for SNCF Society J + 1 quality universal service mission (La Poste) Number and diversity of partnership contact points (La Poste) Source: Compiled from sustainable development reports and interviews

Examples of for-profit public service networks

27 However, some public service networks try to produce their own method of monitoring or their own sustainable development indicators, depending on the specific nature of their business, or on pre-existing tools. For example, the sustainable development division of GDF is in the process of producing turnover with sustainable development content, and since 2003 it has been using a process evaluation method (graded from B to 3A) allowing projects to be classified according to fixed objectives. This company also tried to produce a global solidarity indicator, which was abandoned after it proved impossible to reach a consensus within the company.

28 Analyzing indicators and developments in monitoring environmental standards enables mapping of the integration of sustainable development in for-profit public services. With reference to Lazzeri and Moustier (2006), who identify “diagnostic” indicators (qualitative or quantitative), “process” indicators and global indicators (ex: ecological footprint, HDI), we propose classifying the indicators of public service networks according to a similar distinction, and to illustrate it by some examples (cf. table 1). We identify the universal indicators, in other words those which can be applied generally to other companies, whatever their area of activity, indicators that are more specific to the company’s business.

29 These indicators are able to be formalized by means of Boltanski and Thévenot’s analytical grid (1987, 1991). These authors explain how and why different principles of justification can be mobilized by individuals and groups to express their differences concerning coordination methods, and to justify their actions. These authors identify different worlds of reference [21]. In our approach, we principally select five worlds [22]: civic, market, industrial, fame, and domestic and interpersonal, which are at the basis of inconsistencies encountered by for-profit public services.

30 Through this analytic grid, we can comment on the principles of justification mobilized by the firm to create the indicators (see table 1). “Process indicators” mainly come from the civic world as they use values related to service public missions (e.g. Public Service Charter, Corporate Ethic Charter, Diversity Charter) whereas “Universal and specific indicators” mainly come from the “industrial” world, in other words, from the performance world. We can also notice that the strategy lying behind the development of such environmental indicators can also come from the world of “fame” (e.g. Female Staff, Corporate Ethical Purchasing). Are for-profit public services trying to shift the question of sustainable development from the environmental question to social concerns, so that it becomes easier to deal with?

31 If the standardization indicators and tools represent an advance in terms of the management of sustainable development and beyond the world of reference lying behind those indicators, they lead to some points for consideration.

32 Even if they are universal, these indicators pose problems for making comparisons. As well as problems of consolidation and national specificity, some indicators cannot be separated from the sector of activity concerned (ex: frequency of accidents, rate of risk). Furthermore, the universalization of these indicators results in priority being given to quantitative indicators and global indicators [23]. The only frequently used qualitative indicator (expressed in quantitative terms) is customer satisfaction. The disadvantage of this choice is that it strengthens the status of information of an “industrial” nature, and reduces diversity by abolishing specific indicators, which proves to be contrary to one of the principles of sustainable development, which is supporting diversity.
Moreover, support for these frames of reference is not generally subject to any procedure for verifying that these principles are fulfilled [24]. When it is planned, evaluation is very often difficult, insofar as it requires expert knowledge. Does the verification body have expertise in the required area, or are these competences the prerogative of a single company? (Power, 1996; Igalens, 2004).
Finally, any development indicator encounters limits linked to uncertainty on changes in variables, such as new technologies or lifestyles. This translates into difficulties in establishing net thresholds, and leads to the use of value factors (Godard, 1996).

Innovation and sustainable development

33 Innovation is an integral part of the approach that formalizes sustainable development. Companies which respect this approach commit resources to develop and use the technologies that are most in keeping with the environment [25]. This commitment is taken on by the national and European authorities. But innovation also belongs to the original public service mission. These activities should be able to adapt the content of public service to developments in technical progress, and to user needs (a principle described as mutability or adaptation). It is therefore logical that innovation is generally maintained within the values expressed by for-profit public services and the partnerships undertaken [26].

34 We identify two kinds of innovation introduced as part of sustainable development, “pure” innovations which refer to a particular sphere of sustainable development, but the aim of most of the innovations made as part of sustainable development is to reconcile the different spheres of sustainable development between themselves. It is this second kind of innovation that we will now study. These innovations change with the concerns of the public service networks.

Public service networks and the innovations to compromise

35 To make their activity compatible with their public service mission, the public services have developed a series of innovations, whose aim is to reconcile the “society” sphere with the “economy” sphere. These activities should in fact reconcile their public service mission (costly in time and in money) with their constraint of profitability. This search for solutions has accelerated with the intensification in competition. Confronted by these conflicting logics, public service agents have devised solutions. Some of these solutions will result in innovations. These innovations, which modify public service efficiency methods, try to reduce the different kinds of for-profit costs or additional costs attached to the provision of civic and social services. They differ depending on the kind of access considered.

36 Boltanski and Thévenot’s analytical grid (1987, 1991) can also be used to emphasize the multidimensional aspects of innovation, by considering the latter as a mechanism for compromise between different conventions. The distinction between these different worlds of reference (civic, market, industrial, fame and domestic and interpersonal) permits a better understanding of the role that innovations play in the cohabitation of different logics within services. Innovations to compromise will represent the innovations which favour “the coexistence of several service characteristics (whatever these characteristics are) which are, a priori, difficult to reconcile from the viewpoint of justification registers. They thus allow different value judgments to be reconciled between themselves” (Merlin-Brogniart, 2007, p. 53). As part of public service missions, the main characteristic of compromise innovations is to facilitate access (financial, physical or cognitive) by customers to services that are considered to be fundamental, whilst trying to reduce civic and social costs that are linked to this access. These innovations allow these costs to be reduced, but rarely eliminate them. These innovations seek, then, to reconcile market or industrial service characteristics with the civic, special and interpersonal characteristics previously mentioned.

37 This role of innovation is not specific to public service activities. It is found to different degrees in all activities. However, innovations seeking a compromise between the for-profit and the civic world are particularly common in the public services. In the context of sustainable development, many compromise innovations will seek to reconcile the three spheres of sustainable development. This kind of innovation should therefore be enhanced with the application of the principles of sustainable development, and should be extended to the environmental dimension.

38 As part of convention theory as stated by Boltanski and Thévenot (1991), we could ask if the logic of sustainable development would not represent a new register of justification. If this was the case, reconciliation between the “environment” sphere and the “economy” sphere would represent another example of compromise innovations, as stated in Boltanski and Thévenot’s registers of reference. It is possible to find some value of sustainable development in each of Boltanski and Thévenot’s worlds: the notion of a common good in the civic register; the notion of heritage to be passed on in the domestic register, and, to a certain extent, the satisfaction of needs in the industrial register. Thus, producing innovations that reconcile different worlds of reference, in particular the market world and the civic world (general interest), leads to an expansion of sustainability. The aim is to reduce the contradictions in short-term objectives by including long-term economic activity, Godard (1994). But according to this author, the notion of sustainable development cannot in itself constitute a new world of reference insofar as it does not respect the axiom of “common humanity” and of “equal power of access to different states” defining these registers of justification.
Table 2 takes these kinds of compromise innovations that are found in for-profit public services between the “society” sphere and the “economy” sphere of sustainable development. We note that these innovations are also similar to a compromise between the civic world and the market world.

Table 2

Solutions depending on type of access

Table 2
TYPE OF ACCESS SOLUTIONS-Compromise between the “economy” and “society” spheres PHYSICAL ACCESS New institutional forms of service delivery - Organizational solution: FPPS/FPPS 27 or FPPS/ private service partnerships; PIMS 28 , (partnership between several public services. Grouping of these in the same location); “Points-Postes” (partnership between the postal services and retail trades such as bakeries, cafés), Agence Postale Communale (partnership between councils and postal services to deliver the service in rural areas) - Technical solution: access to services by minitel, computer, automatic distributors - Providers of services or new operations that are sometimes outside the company’s core business: allô facteur (hello postman) 29 , entrée facteur (postman’s entry); pharmacy/council/La Poste partnership TARIFF ACCESS - Community financial equilibrium: tariff standardization, cross-subsidies - Technical systems for consumption management: Water pre-payment meter, “Compteur Libre Energie” (CLE), proposed by EDF GDF in 1992; “Purge Automatique Temporisée” (PAT) to reduce consumption periods; “ Système Maintien Energie” (SME) to reduce the power or volume consumed. - Personalized payment assistance systems (Housing solidarity fund) (GDF), Gaz de France energy solidarity fund COGNITIVE, SOCIAL ACCESS - Partnerships: with local authorities - Addition of new service characteristics previously delivered informally: training in automatic machines, new technologies (internet), training in the euro, Education-training mission, Advice, insulation to optimize consumption management. - Institutionalization of new businesses: creation of jobs for assistants, interpreters Source : Merlin-Brogniart, 2007, p. 58 (completed through interviews)

Solutions depending on type of access

Note  [27],  [28],  [29]

39 Different kinds of innovation allow the “economy” sphere to be reconciled with the “society” sphere. Everything depends on the nature of the access. For example, many partnership solutions contribute towards promoting the presence of public services in the territory (partnerships with other public companies or with local private businesses).

40 For financial access, some forms of aid rely on the introduction of a specific social tariff for people on low incomes (reduction in the price of supplying electricity or telephone services), other forms of aid allow the user to control consumption of the service and therefore its price (prepayment meters). Some aid involves the social services, charitable organizations, or the State).

41 Cognitive access favours social cohesion. It consists of the introduction of commercial practices that make the user’s invoice easier to read (ex: increase in the frequency of invoicing) in order to avoid service disconnections, or which provide advice, allowing the user to reduce the energy or water bill (ombudsman, right price advice, local meetings). In network services which have close contact with the user, such as La Poste, for example, cognitive access is also allowed by the institutionalization of new jobs (ex: creation of jobs for assistants, interpreters).

Trends in developing innovation

42 Most of the innovations that have an impact on conditions of network access were implemented before the idea of sustainable development was formally integrated. These innovations have a social objective or are carried out from the perspective of spatial planning. They contribute to improving access to public service. They therefore allow the territories to be socialized or re-socialized. With competition intensifying, these activities are now part of a profitable logic that favours social dialogue. The integration of a sustainable development logic should not limit development of this kind of innovation, the new solutions will be integrated into a more extensive societal framework, whose objective is to reconcile the three spheres “society” “environment” and “economy”.

43 Reconciliation between the “society” sphere and the “economy” sphere is the most advanced as it is part of the history of the company. It is possible to identify some changes.

44 - Innovations allowing this compromise extend to broader social missions, to improve the safety of the activity and to promote diversity. For example, most public services facilitate applications from people from the suburbs (ex: GDF, SNCF), or they favour ecological management work experience (ex: La Poste).

45 - Innovations relating to former social missions also evolve, depending on the kind of missions considered.

46 With regard to the spatial planning mission, an increasing number of organizational innovations aim to share resulting costs in order to retain contact points. This cost mutualization is achieved by the introduction of a partnership with the other for-profit public services or the semi-autonomous regions. Innovations that are devised are therefore above all of an organizational nature.

47 We also note a process of (re-)commodization of services that were previously delivered informally or “unclassified” [30], or a transformation of these added value services.

48 Some of these social or local services are rewritten as part of services that are offered formally by the company. These changes contribute towards making profitable the services that have become non-profitable because of territorial developments.

49 New local services have also been established (ex: services to transport medicines (pharmacy-La Poste partnership); the “entrée facteur” and “allô facteur” services previously mentioned). In contrast to the previous solutions, these services represent full services, irrespective of their civic characteristics. These services are attached to what one calls personalized access. Other services that are not directly civic and social follow this local service logic and have been extended to sustainable development, such as the sale of third party products (ex: Sale of ethical products in some post offices). These services are to a certain extent involved in reconstructing elements of sociability.

50 - Reconciliation between the “environment” and “economy” sphere of sustainable development.

51 For-profit public services whose activity does not affect the environment mainly introduce new approaches in order to reduce their impact on the environment, this can happen by analyzing the lifecycle of a product (ex: eco-designed stamp), the use of own technology (ex: electric vehicle) or the reduction in their ecological impact (ex: reduction in paper consumption, double decker lorry at La Poste). These measures are all the better accepted by company management because they allow the company to reduce costs (for-profit world). Public service networks working in the environmental field are continuing their environmental innovations. For example, GDF is currently involved in research on the geological sequestration of carbon.

52 We could consider that those innovations are not really characteristic advances for for-profit public services insofar green technologies are designed by other sectors (eg. electric vehicles). This analysis corresponds to the “assimilation” perspective of innovation in services (cf. Djellal & Gallouj, 2009). However, as those authors point out, the “assimilation” perspective is not sufficient to take into account innovations in services. Indeed, the service innovation process is more complex than the adoption of innovation from the industrial sector. These activities develop non technological innovations which are less visible, like social innovations. The latter are based on professional rationalization or cognitive rationalization (Gadrey, 1996), which means that they rely on the development of a routine, formalization, and problem resolution. This other approach is described as a “differentiation” perspective. In this case, it can be related to the development of long-term useful effects. Thus, for-profit public services try to improve social cohesion (by increasing social relationship, developing partnerships…) but also by working out new sustainable development indicators (which develop the firm’s expertise in the field of sustainable development). This “differentiation” approach is more active in the attempt to reconcile the “society” and the “environment” spheres that we are going to study now.

53 - The reconciliation of the “environment” sphere with the “society” sphere. The spatial planning mission can today be found in this category, where companies try to reconstitute the service offer, depending on changes in life style, but they are increasingly aware of the impact of their activity on changes in the landscape. We can include in this category the organizational partnerships previously mentioned, actions-training undertaken by companies working in the energy field to make the population aware of services and their use (ex: local meetings, communication). These measures are undertaken within partnership agreements.
- The aim of some innovations (voluntary or not) is to reconcile the three spheres of sustainable development. For example, the development of eco-management training reduces the company’s petrol consumption (for-profit economic logic), avoids environmental pollution (environmental sphere) but also reduces the number of accidents on the roads (society sphere).
Finally, we can wonder if for-profit public services would come out “winners” from the ecological economy development and from changes involved inside the firm by this evolution. On a long-term perspective, are those activities going to disappear due to their behaviour which is not always sustainable (for example in terms of gas emission)? We can answer this question in two ways:

  • in terms of social cohesion (Reconciliation between the “society” and “economy” spheres of sustainable development), the re-commodization of several services (presented above) as well as spatial reorganization (eg. as a way to reduce office expenses for the postal service for example) can also be seen as negative externalities in terms of social cohesion. But this idea has to be moderate with the fact that those organizations are trying to create several positive externalities by developing innovations enabling socialization or re-socialization of territories (eg. grouping several public services in the same localization such as PIMS or “Points-Postes”). It is also a means to reduce the emission of gas effect (economy sphere) and to revitalize other areas gathering more people (society sphere). Moreover, several for-profit public services are also working on the energy field (gas, electricity). They contribute to the protection of essential resources for society.
  • in terms of employment. Could those service activities, which have been leading sectors during the thirty years following the Second World War, also become the leading sectors of the ecological economy? Will services gain employment by following sustainable development or on the contrary will they lose jobs? This is a question studied by J. Gadrey (2008). Job creation mainly depends on their capability to reconcile the “environment” and “economy” spheres of sustainable development. Public firms from the energy field which are seeking renewable energies will create jobs. The Railway Company in its very nature, does not pollute as much. Those activities also participate in socio-economic sustainability by developing social cohesion services (eg. they avoid or prevent power cuts, gas cuts or water cuts when customers are not solvent). The activities of other sectors, like postal services or the French “Banque Postale” can reduce both socio-economic sustainability (social cohesion reduction) and ecological sustainability (gas emissions, paper usage). Their sustainability is ambivalent because negative ecological externalities are numerous. They may gain or lose jobs. Thus developing sustainable innovations is a means to remain among ecological economy leading sectors and to set a good example to other sectors. Other for-profit public services not analysed here, in particular home-help services like old-age care would take more place in the ecological economy and attract public investments. They are going to be necessary for the development of the ecological economy and create employment.


54 For-profit public services easily integrate the issue of sustainable development and its constraints in their activity, to the extent where they are already by nature facing reconciliation between social missions, or spatial planning with profitability constraints. Their legitimacy in terms of sustainable development is helped by their history, insofar as these activities are part of long-term societal concerns.

55 If in the past service standardization and the search for economies of scale were able to reduce the interpersonal and social dimension, today for-profit public services try to reconstruct these elements of sociability and solidarity by reasserting public service commitments, as well as by integrating sustainable development objectives.

56 This progress towards sustainable development can be identified on the one hand by the variety of sustainable development indicators and management systems adopted by these companies; and on the other hand, by the innovations put in place. In fact, more and more innovations of these activities aim to reconcile the conflicting objectives of the different spheres of sustainable development represented by the economic, social and environmental fields. This tendency allows territories to be re-socialized and better integrated by the company if they allow financial costs to be reduced.


  • [1]
    The universal service is a minimum service the quality of which is given, open to everyone and affordable.
  • [2]
    Sustainable development report 2003, Groupe La Poste (Post Office Group), p.4
  • [3]
    Access to these services represents a fundamental element of belonging to a community (Gadrey, 1997).
  • [4]
    La Poste, for example, is one of the main employers in France with 280,000 postal workers, EDF employs no fewer than 158,000 employees, the SNCF group about 210 000, or GDF employs 50,000 staff.
  • [5]
    According to our interviews.
  • [6]
    The 2001 French law on the New Economic Regulations (NER) and the order of February 20, 2002 implementing the act, requires listed companies to publish information relating to corporate governance and its environmental impacts in their annual report.
  • [7]
    ex: reducing daily paper consumption in the company.
  • [8]
    TGV: Train Grande Vitesse [High Speed Train]
  • [9]
    These schemes are in the areas of health, information and communication, passenger and goods transport or energy.
  • [10]
    This is expressed by innovative practices relating to the establishment of other kinds of management, and in particular collaboration between for-profit and not-for-profit public services and with private or community services in sparsely populated areas.
  • [11]
    The law of June 25, 1999 explicitly links the aims of sustainable development and spatial planning.
  • [12]
    The company GDF, for example, formalized environmental policy from 1993 (updated in 2004), SNCF developed an “environment” mission in 1992, an Environment department in 1997 and from 2002, EDF adopted 21 guiding principles on sustainable development in reference to Agenda 21. Some public service networks like EDF supported the recommendations for taking account of sustainable development in the economic world, established in 1995 by the network of multinationals, WECSD.
  • [13]
    Eight French companies (ADP, CDC, EDF GDF, CNF, RATP, SNCF, and VNF) have signed a Charter that refers to five commitments: the development of competences, employee mobilization, technological expertise, research, the localization of sustainable development.
  • [14]
    for example GDF, SNCF, EDF, French Postal Service
  • [15]
    Association of companies for the reduction of the greenhouse effect.
  • [16]
    In 2005, 64.5% of the activities of the La Poste group were placed in the competitive sector, there should be full liberalization in 2011.
  • [17]
    Electricity or gas open to competition for individuals on July 1 2007.
  • [18]
    Interview with the sustainable development division of La Poste.
  • [19]
    ex: The ISO 14 001 standard , the EMAS system; social standards (SA 8 000 standard ) or accounting standards (FASB; ASC).
  • [20]
    Based on interviews
  • [21]
    The market world, the industrial world, the world of fame, the world of inspiration, the domestic world and the civic world.
  • [22]
    Boltanski and Thévenot (1991) also identify the world of inspiration. Although we talk here of innovations, this world will interest us less for our analysis, insofar as for the authors it is about “free creations” (Gallouj, 1997) and not those created for industrial, market, social or domestic needs.
  • [23]
    Ex: method of the Sustain Ability company.
  • [24]
    For example membership of the Global Compact.
  • [25]
    cf. OECD PNUE program, principle 9 of the Global Compact, etc.
  • [26]
    Research project in partnership with laboratories researching sustainable development issues.
  • [27]
    For-Profit Public Service Networks (FPPS)
  • [28]
    Multi-service information point which consists of centralization of a certain number of public activities (EDF-GDF, France Télécom, SNCF, La Poste) in a single location.
  • [29]
    “allô facteur” is a telephone number to order certain services the day before (ex: cash deliveries). The service “entrée facteur” is a sticker that the user can put on the letterbox to tell the postman that he wants to have a home service. In Dordogne, home services delivered by postmen account for about 15,000 current management operations a week (Source Forum: July August 2003, n°180).
  • [30]
    “Unclassified”: services provided at the discretion of agents, that is in a non-formalized way and which are not listed in official public service missions (Gadrey, Gallouj, Ghillebaert et al., 1996).


For-profit public service networks increasingly incorporate sustainable development objectives. This vital concern occurs in a situation of generalised competition in which demands for profitability are increasingly important. This study concerns the way in which the issue of sustainable development fits into the strategies and activities of these services. By adopting a conventionalist approach, this study looks in particular at the innovations involved in these activities to respond to sustainable development objectives, whilst respecting the constraints of profitability and public service linked to their business. The results show that these activities develop sustainable development indicators, either in a mimetic approach, or in an innovative approach. They also develop innovations that allow social elements to be reconstructed in their services. These innovations try to reconcile the conflicting objectives of the different spheres of sustainable development.
JEL codes: O14, O31, Q01


  • public services
  • innovation
  • Corporate Social Responsibility
  • sustainable development


  • BENOIT, J. M., BENOIT, P., PUCCI, D. (2002), La France à 20 minutes, Paris: Belin.
  • BOLTANSKI, L., THEVENOT, L. (1987), « Les Economies de la grandeur », Cahiers du Centre d’Etudes de l’Emploi, n°31, Paris : Protée, P.U.F.
  • BOLTANSKI, L., THEVENOT, L. (1991), De la justification. Les économies de la grandeur, NRF Essais, Paris : Gallimard.
  • En ligne CAROLL, A. B. (1979), “A Three-dimensional Conceptual Model of Corporate Social Performance”, Academy of Management Review, 4 (4), 497-505.
  • En ligne CAROLL, A. B. (1991), “The Pyramid of Corporate Social Responsibility: Toward the Moral Management of Organizational Stakeholders”, Business Horizons, July-August, 39-48.
  • En ligne COUTARD, O., PFLIEGER, G. (2002), “Une analyse du rôle des usagers dans le développement des services de réseaux en France ”, Entreprises et histoire, 30, 136-152.
  • En ligne DJELLAL, F., GALLOUJ, F. (2009), “ Innovation dans les services et entrepreneuriat : au-delà des conceptions industrialistes et technologistes du développement durable”, Innovations, 2009/1, 29, 59-86.
  • FREEMAN, N. R. (1984), Strategic Management: A Stakeholder Approach, Pitman Publishing Luc, Marshfield.
  • En ligne GADREY, J. (1994), “La modernisation des services professionnels, rationalisation industrielle ou rationalisation professionnelle? ”, Revue française de sociologie, 35 (2), 163-195.
  • GADREY, J. (1997), « Le ‘service universel’ : pourquoi ce débat en France et en Europe, aujourd’hui ? », Vème journées IFRESI, vol 3, services publics, services aux personnes : métiers, performance, territoires, 20, 21 mars, 97-108.
  • GADREY, J. (2008), “La crise écologique exige une révolution de l’économie des services”, colloque CEDES, Services, Innovation et développement durable, Poitiers 26, 27,28 mars.
  • GADREY, J., GALLOUJ, F, GHILLEBAERT, E. (1996), avec la collaboration de D. Duplaa, C. Gallouj, La Poste : Mondes de production, Types de produits, Contribution à la cohésion sociale, Rapport de recherche pour la Direction de la Stratégie de La Poste, octobre, 106 p.
  • GALLOUJ, F. (1997), Vers une théorie de l’innovation dans les services, avec la collaboration de F. Djellal et C. Gallouj, recherche effectuée pour le Commissariat Général du Plan, décision d’aide n°18/1995, juillet, 149p.
  • GERON, G, VANDERMOTTEN, C. (2002), « Introduction », in Le développement durable des territoires, éd. De l’Université de Bruxelles, coll. Aménagement du territoire et environnement , ed. C. Vandermotten, 231p.
  • GODARD, O. (1994), « Développement durable et processus de justification des choix en univers controversé », colloque : Modèles de développement soutenable. Des approches exclusives ou complémentaires de la soutenabilité ?, Paris, 16-18 mars, 115-126.
  • GODARD, O. (1996), « Le développement durable et le devenir des villes : bonnes intentions et fausses bonnes idées », Futuribles, 209, 29-35.
  • IGALENS, J., JORAS, M. (2002), La responsabilité sociale de l’entreprise, Paris: Ed. d’Organisation.
  • En ligne IGALENS, J. (2004), « Comment évaluer les rapports de développement durable? », Revue française de gestion 2004/5, 152, 151-166.
  • LAZZERI, Y., MOUSTIER, E. (2006), « Les expériences territoriales d’élaboration d’indicateurs de développement durable : un tour d’horizon », in Les indicateurs territoriaux de développement durable, questionnements et expériences, sous la direction de Y. Lazzeri dir., L’Harmattan, 77-104.
  • LOINGER, G. (2002), « La notion de développement durable dans le champs de l’aménagement du territoire », in Le développement durable des territoires, éd. De l’Université de Bruxelles, coll. Aménagement du territoire et environnement, ed. C. Vandermotten.
  • MANCEBO, F. (2006), Le développement durable, Paris: coll. U, Géographie, Armand Colin.
  • MARAIS, M., REYNAUD, E. (2007), « Comparaison entre les entreprises françaises publiques et privées face aux exigences du développement durable », Congrès développement durable, Territoires et entreprises, IAE, juin.
  • MARIOTTI, J.-A. (2006), « Aménagement du territoire, services publics et services au public », Avis et Rapports du Conseil Economique et Social.
  • MENY, Y., THOENIG, J. C. (1989), Politiques publiques, Paris: PUF.
  • MERLIN, C. (2006), Les services publics en mutation, La Poste innove, Paris: L’esprit économique, L’Harmattan.
  • MERLIN-BROGNIART, C. (2007), « Les services publics en réseau face aux défis de la globalisation : les innovations de compromis », in Mondialisation des services, innovation et dynamiques territoriales, M.-C. Monnoyer & P. Ternaux eds., Paris: L’Harmattan, 45-62.
  • En ligne POWER, M. (1996), “Making things auditable in Accounting”, Organizations and Society, 21 (2-3), 289-315.
  • Rapport Brundtland G.H. (1989), Notre avenir à Tous, rapport de la commission mondiale sur l’environnement et le développement, les éditions du fleuve, Paris (traduction française de Our Common Future, 1987).
  • Rapport développement durable du groupe EDF (2006)
  • Rapport développement durable du groupe GDF (2006)
  • Rapport développement durable du groupe La Poste (2003, 2005, 2006)
  • Rapport développement durable du groupe EDF (2006)
  • THEYS, J. (2004), « L’aménagement du territoire à l’épreuve du développement durable », Regards sur l’actualité, 302, La Documentation Française, 37-55
  • ZUINDEAU, B. (2000), « La durabilité : essai de positionnement épistémologique du concept », pp. in B. Zuindeau B. ed., Développement durable et territoire, Lille: Presses Universitaires du Septentrion, 27-69.
Céline Merlin-Brogniart
GRANEM-UMR-MA 49, University of Angers (France)
Clersé-CNRS-University of Lille (France) 8019
Mis en ligne sur le 31/05/2010
Pour citer cet article
Distribution électronique pour De Boeck Supérieur © De Boeck Supérieur. Tous droits réservés pour tous pays. Il est interdit, sauf accord préalable et écrit de l’éditeur, de reproduire (notamment par photocopie) partiellement ou totalement le présent article, de le stocker dans une banque de données ou de le communiquer au public sous quelque forme et de quelque manière que ce soit.
Chargement en cours.
Veuillez patienter...