This article is part of the series Descentralización y municipios: los retos de la COVID-19.
Coordinated by Professor Willy Pedroso, this series is intended to analyze the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on Cuba’s efforts to promote decentralization and boost local development since the approval of the new Constitution. It is aimed at examining to what extent this crisis has revealed or increased our management problems and other economic, production, environmental and sociocultural difficulties. Likewise, it purports to discuss the necessary [political, material, institutional] conditions for a municipality to engage actively in the Cuban national strategy for economic recovery.
* An expanded version of this text will be published in a compilation book of the University and Local Development Network.
The Cuban municipalities are about to start managing their own resources according to the Constitution of 2019. Meanwhile, their managers are coping with a swift mutation of citizen activity in digital networks, the national and provincial demands for the adoption of E-government, and big unresolved problems in terms of digital infrastructure and capacity building.
The complex knots to be untied within the municipal development plans add to the maelstrom of processes required for a transformation leading up to a common welfare, co-managed from, and through, the digital networks. Such is the possible outcome at local level as we grope our way toward this goal.
This article tackles these problems on the basis of the work of professors of the School of Communication of the University of Havana as part of Proyecto ENREDES, Información y Comunicación para la gestión del desarrollo local between 2015 and 2020; a number of studies on self-managed wireless networks between 2014 and 2019; and the lessons learned from an E-government Guide launched in September 2019 and implemented in Cuban municipalities.
Its conclusions reach beyond a reflection about E-government in an attempt to provide the key elements of the contribution of a digital information network built on communicational cooperation practices to a common development plan in the Cuban situation.
Photo: Progreso Semanal
Infocommunication, governance and digital networks in Cuba in 2020
As the main space for the integral self-management of national life and development, the local context seems to be gaining status as the preferred goal—following the approval of the Constitution of 2019 and in light of the premises of the political discourse amidst the epidemiological contingency—in key sectors such as food production and housing construction.
Coincidentally, communication, informatization and innovation are considered as the “pillars” of the country’s work strategy for its post-COVID-19 recovery plans as the science and government agenda becomes more consolidated (Díaz-Canel, 2020), an essential element of the search for solutions in these fields.
However, many authors have warned of structural and practical contradictions that might undermine this task from the outset (Guzón, 2018) in the midst of the nation’s increasingly urgent and crucial socioeconomic circumstances.
Recognized as a strategic asset in the national development plans for 2030, communication has been progressively integrated into the work dynamics of national and local public administration, but lacking understanding, management and assessment that is “neither systematic nor subject to a strategic approach”  (Garcés, Rodríguez and Pedroso, 2019).
Information emerges as a parallel dimension whose particular features, integration and links to communication are not quite clear to its current managers and prevent its processes from being organically structured.
There is also the fact that their usual idea about interacting with the citizens is limited to feedback and complaint-handling procedures, dealt with elsewhere in the system. Besides, their approach is focused exclusively on the transformation of institutions as entities expected to attain their goals single-handedly, which makes them seem as mostly emitting bodies.
The guidelines of a national E-government strategy were made explicit in the last few years (MINCOM, 2018). It’s centered on four main stages, namely, the inclusion of information on websites, the creation of interactive channels, the provision of online services and, finally, the global transformation of work processes. The first one emphasizes the development of provincial and municipal search engines with information about local services and activities, a goal reached at provincial level in 2019. These plans include the design of global indicators within a multidisciplinary work framework and the articulation of various national and local institutions as a function of their conception and technical support.
The development of the said strategy and its related infrastructure, as well as the space for discussion and organization that it has provided, are a significant step forward in the attainment of the E-government goal. Its design is intended to improve a territory’s capacity to meet the demands of the program in a uniform and effective manner.
Nevertheless, its phased, results-based implementation delays, and to some extent disrupts, some essential aspects and principles of the process, originally conceived to help achieve the ultimate goal as expected. This endeavor must transcend E-government’s specific technical demands to focus on a global projection of regional development.
Collective participation in the design, implementation and performance assessment to enable diagnoses and adjustments based on social priorities and forms of use (feasible at a local level with on-site representation), as well as the organization of networks that facilitate work and even its consequent transformation, are some of the principles that seem to be underplayed or provisionally deferred.
At the same time, the country and its government structure are burdened with overlapping services, exchanges with the citizens and problems requiring the development of functions at some stages which were not yet implemented in 2020 because of the pressing matters involved, popular demand and the diversity of parallel initiatives.
Likewise, the plans to transform the government structure are hardly ever portrayed as an autonomous decision of a territory aware of its problems and in need of a strategy of its own to solve them, which curtails the scope of any real change within its institutional organizational structures and tampers with their channels of social and inter-institution relations.
In other words, while the phased development scheme stands out as a scalable and flexible model for the various initial conditions of a territory, it requires an integral and participatory approach capable of allowing for the overall transformation of the process from the design stage which won’t consider the government body as an isolated service provider.
The problems identified in a number of inquiries  make it clear that the transformation of a government’s field of action cannot be considered as a sector-specific task. A transdisciplinary and multi-actor framework for analysis and entrepreneurship is necessary, one which understands the government body as an entity in interaction with society and subject to its ability to build up good relations in order to achieve its aims.
Photo: Project ENREDES’ Facebook profile
Networks for all, platforms for a few, projects for many
Similarly, the opening of mobile data services in December 2018 flooded the Internet with exchanges of views about the country’s situation. They include recurring reviews of matters of public interest having an impact on the political agenda, dynamics of mass association and cooperation on different topics, the expansion and rearrangement of the representation of the Cuban digital public sphere in its transnational dimension, and a growing interaction between the political and media discourse and the Internet users’ agendas.
All of this creates a representative image of the country and its actions that becomes more and more important to the current problems and its solutions on the digital public space, which is shaped in turn by the algorithmic subjection of the knowledge about its contents and their bias and limitation in structures of self-centered bubbles and networks. It’s also influenced by the characteristics of the interfaces and devices.; Cuba’s particular access level and its cost and availability to specific social groups (depending on their geographical location, age, education and income); and its dissimilar and evolutionary forms of use and expression.
This comes on top of the circumstances under which, in 2020, Cuba tackles its dispute with the Government of the United States, with its great impact on the national political life.
These mediations are a huge challenge to the consensual design and management of a development project in an environment of increasing relevance to the way that both the citizens and their leaders understand and exercise social life.
Still, very seldom is the key role of this space in the country’s public life presented as a framework of common action established at the level of the institutions and social entities to overcome difficulties, hold public debates or promote collective innovation.
The government often considers the social networks as a delicate or dangerous milieu, a space to disseminate information, have political confrontations or, more recently, canvass public opinion. Such conceptions contrast with the exuberant forms of social life in this space, where people trade, cooperate, and even share intimate and everyday occurrences.
No less recurring is the trend to ascribe a predominantly transmissive function to communication in general as a process and consider the audiences as just a source of feedback in the work strategy, a typical feature of the communication models that we have critiqued.
Furthermore, it’s fairly commonplace to see many suggestions or denunciations made on websites which have no procedure in place to get back in touch with those who posted them, either because it’s not part of the relevant site’s intentions or because neither the users nor the government account managers know how to make it possible.
The predominant social use of international private platforms like Facebook, prevents the large-scale access to these exchanges because of the cost of the national service and extends the sources of interaction to a transnational public domain marked by a variety of realities and political differences. This entails very little control over the country’s outgoing information, as well as submission to algorithms and interfaces of transnational corporations regarding the profiling of the contents. It also provides a well-structured environment for the orderly management of these interactions on the basis of the social experience gained in their use.
Photo: Project ENREDES
A key element in this respect is the deficient training in the country on the use of digital network environments, even more so when it comes to the political participation in these spaces by citizens and government actors alike. The formulation of national projects in this field dissolves in the efforts of different sectors and ministries with biased views and preference for the technical-instrumental and critical-ideological learning of these dynamics.
As stated before, it’s impossible to understand this situation without taking heed of the influence of the interference of the Government of the United States of America in our country’s political life. They exercise this policy through government programs costing millions of dollars to fund multiple plans (Department of State, 2020) and expressly tasked with the toppling of the revolutionary project. There is plenty of public and official evidence of those actions in various spaces.
As a result of the contradiction between the myriad forms of this activity and the consequent defensive measures of the Cuban State, the debate about common political issues has a hard time gaining ground without showing signs of one-sidedness and rupture, manipulation and organized foreign interference, mistrust and even unlawfulness. But then again, this is a regular feature with different expressions in Cuban history that we must keep in mind when we design cooperation and participation projects.
As we said, the processes that we are discussing here go beyond government or public administration as a solitary structure. Their inclusion in the requirements of a socially tight development plan involves understanding their role within the complex relationships in which they unfold.
To this end it is essential to rely on a conceptual framework capable of keeping the fabric of the institutions intact and making information flow both ways. The chaotic and biased nature of the public information exchanges is also insufficiently addressed when we try to apply a systemic approach to entities and actors who neither consider one another as such nor engage in well-defined forms of relationship. This referent can be useful to understanding an organization whose members have mutual goals and interests, but it’s more difficult to make it fit within the large number of interests, practices and exchanges that any given territory could have.
It’s noticeable from what we learn about online interaction practices in Cuba that many cooperation, information flow and consensus building processes related to certain key issues, take place with or without the involvement of the legal entities in charge of the information network managers. It happens because the information flows thus initiated do not always guarantee the principles of equity and inclusion that the government is responsible for.
In many instances the official intervention in these flows is only to give a response, which makes the interaction look as customer-oriented with the government on the receiving end of citizen participation. This approach does not make problem-solving any easier, nor does it promote cooperation with the government bodies. Besides, the latter seem to be the only ones in charge of finding those solutions, eliminating their cause, and facilitating their holistic comprehension.
At local level, this is a major restraint on the scope and effectiveness of any effort whose complexity goes beyond the territorial boundaries. The problems with housing or garbage collection in municipalities such as Centro Habana are a good example.
Photo: Project ENREDES
According to this approach  the local governments are a node in a network that exists to the extent that other actors exchange information with them. This in turn provides the proper interfaces to take advantage of and consolidate those exchanges, as in the case of online government services, training actions and communication.
A local government body’s mission would be to strengthen these interactions through connection interfacing, empowerment, and citizen, enterprise and inter-institutional creativity. These network activities pave the way for consensus building with a view to the articulation of the efforts, resources and intentions that development management requires . This calls for the digital transformation  of the institution’s work processes with a view to their effectiveness.
It also involves strengthening the ability of other network nodes and users to create useful (non-instrumental) flows therein, such as the different forms of association and action in the civil society, the state enterprises and the private sector, as well as in public administration sectors and specific social groups.
This task can only be accomplished if it’s managed as a participatory, inclusive, effective and organic process in which the information that contributes to the achievement of collective well-being and the ways of managing that information stand as a public asset of the territorial community in a regulatory and executive framework.
The possibility that the direction of the said flows lends this task a socialist quality depends on how much participation and transparency they can guarantee and how capable they are of preventing the fragmentation and reticular bias (resulting from foreign algorithms and a limited political management of communication) of the truths and debates, as well as on the prevalence among the contradictions expressed in the exchanges of the typical values of an emancipatory political project. That is, both the process and its purposes are relevant and, as they unfold, they become mutually conditional and supportive.
Photo: Project ENREDES’ Facebook profile
Premises against uncertainty
Any suggestion can only be useful as a source of reflection to plan for solutions. The complexity of this problem increases in proportion to the urgency of the changes that it requires, but it contrasts with its possible impact on the government management, problem-solving and consensus-building processes.
The design of an E-government-oriented work strategy must be aimed at the achievement of the territory’s development goals, not only to the digital transformation of any given organization. Therefore, it cannot be designed without including those who take part in the said development plans in both the goal- and priority-setting process and the management of their implementation and evaluation.
To this end an executive legal framework is as essential as the creation of suitable interfaces in multiple communication platforms and channels, so that every actor can get prepared, receive information and have the necessary contribution and control capacity. The promotion of socially co-managed domestic spaces (to hold discussions, propose solutions and initiatives, provide training, make formal complaints, share ideas and make assessments) would be a strength of such a project, even if it had to compete with the traditional forms of use among a sizable number of users.
The interoperability and reliability of the data processing and storage system, the information flows between platforms and actors, the organization of work systems to adopt smart solutions based on the said structure and its automatic processing are paramount to guarantee the effectiveness and functionability of these efforts, with diagnostic and innovation as their spearhead. The implementation of the these changes calls for the reorganization and professional qualification of, as well as the provision of production incentives for, the workforce in public administration bodies so that they can rise to the new challenge.
Of course, none of these steps are possible in the current circumstances without an agile political will and a binding mechanism of popular control.
The range of disciplines, efforts and circumstances leading up to this scenario need a grassroots work platform to cope with the complexities of the required solutions, managed from a political level that makes it possible to overcome the biased nature of the institutional and ministerial management and approaches. The recurring explicit references about this topic, their regular examination by the government and their inclusion in the priorities of the post-COVID-19 crisis management are the main strengths of this task and a major key to the progress of several Latin American countries in this field. (Naser, 2019)
Building common welfare on the basis of cooperative forms of information exchange in the hands of qualified and empowered actors is a requisite inherent to the management of a socialist development project. And it must be in line with the inclusive, equitable, transparent, participatory and just character implicit in the ethics of the Cuban political project and the provisions of our National Economic and Social Development Plan for 2030.
The interaction of government bodies in a digital ecosystem must be based on a communication policy attuned to the transformations of the Cuban public sphere. The latter must be capable of promoting participation in the processes to develop our national project and lead the transformation of the public (media, government, administration, research) institutions—as interfaces of management—in a context of transparence, effectiveness and commitment to the principles of socialist development and, therefore, to their defense.
From Centro Habana municipality to [the town of] Jiguaní, this approach would facilitate the conception of information resources, as well as their management and communicational use, as common non-depletable or hoardable assets of the entire society that make it possible to establish network innovation and co-creation processes.
Translation: Jesús Bran
Castells, 2009. Comunicación y poder. Madrid: Alianza.
Delgado, T., 2020. Taxonomía de Transformación Digital. Revista Cubana de Transformación Digital, p. https://rctd.uic.cu/rctd/article/view/62.
Department of State, U. S., 2020. Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFO): DRL FY19: Cuba Proposals. [Online] Available at: https://www.state.gov/notice-of-funding-opportunity-nofo-drl-fy19-cuba-proposals/
Díaz-Canel, M., 2020. Tenemos la obra de la Revolución delante y hay que defenderla con pasión. Cubadebate, 28 6, pp. http://www.cubadebate.cu/noticias/2020/06/28/diaz-canel-tenemos-la-obra-de-la-revolucion-delante-y-hay-que-defenderla-con-pasion/#.XwDrhyj0mM8.
Gárcés, R. & Rodríguez, Y. y. P. W., 2019. Información y comunicación: ¿los rostros invisibles de la Administración Pública? Universidad de La Habana, pp. pp.106-134.
Guzón, A., 2018. Estrategias municipales para el desarrollo. En: Desarrollo local en Cuba: Retos y perspectivas. La Habana: CEDEL, pp. http://www.cedel.cu/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/0012-Desarrollo-Local-en-Cuba.-Retos-y-Perspectivas.pdf.
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 To Garcés, Rodríguez and Pedroso, the challenges facing the Cuban public administration’s link to information and communication are conditional on the following:
• Absence of public policies and a functional regulatory framework to develop the information society proposed in 2030 program, together with the lack of an operational normative to implement, monitor and evaluate these topics at all levels.
• The consequent detachment of these processes from the actions in support of development management and the deficient use of the municipality as a space to coordinate contributory efforts.
• Reliance on “the degree of control and supervision by top authorities and their explicit statement in the organizational and individual training procedures”.
• Exclusive consideration of communication for transmission-dissemination purposes, with emphasis on means and technologies and on the outer reaches of the institutions, as well as on scattered eventual actions. Also, the separation of the document and record-keeping management from the functions of information analysis and processing with a view to decision-making and solution-seeking.
• Deficient professional qualification of the institutional communication managers and insufficient competence to operate the information and communications technologies.
 In general, we can mention a number of difficulties identified in multiple discussions among many representatives of this field from all over the country:
• Poor or damaged infrastructure in the various entities of the public administration system.
• Poor development of digital competences.
• The structure of professional positions is rather inflexible or limited in scope to undertake these tasks.
• Superimposition of demands and priority tasks.
• Overlapping of disorganized and mutually inoperable technological initiatives.
• The scope of training and debate on the transformations is limited to the middle management.
• Lack of coordination regarding the strategic planning and solution design responsibilities between the public administration bodies and the entities in charge of E-government solutions.
• Nonexistence of a legal framework based on transparence, cooperation and co-management practices.
• Poor cooperation to find competitive solutions outside the state sector.
• Poor articulation, applicability validation and sustainability of the nationwide implementation of available digital transformation methodologies.
• The overall management of the E-government strategy has limited control over institutional activity.
• Prevalence of a tool- and technology-oriented approach over a cultural and holistic one.
This is based on the debates of the I and II E-Government Workshops in 2018 and 2019 at the School of Communication of the University of Havana; gradual exchanges with Poder Popular communicators and actors from every province; discussion groups attended by E-government teams from the provinces of Granma, Santiago de Cuba and Pinar del Río; and the follow-up of implementation processes in the municipalities of Centro Habana, Plaza, Cumanayagua and Habana Vieja (in the context of Proyecto ENREDES: Información y comunicación para la gestión local del desarrollo in municipalities of Havana and Cienfuegos).
 The digital ecological networks can provide a framework for the analysis of this problem in which all actors of a given social environment interact with and have influence over one another and can evolve to adapt themselves to the dynamics resulting from the interaction of their interests and their ways of implementing and representing them.
These interactions take place in public communication and information exchange practices through the social networks, which are becoming increasingly digital. These networks overlap and at the same time interact as a result of the densification and multiplication of the flows generated by the said communication practices and information exchanges.
The density and significance of those flows, and therefore that of the network itself depend on the volume, qualities and scope of the interactions; the capacity for articulation of their representation interfaces—according to the structural conditioning factors of the platforms where they exist— and the competence of the users to interact. The latent density of that public interaction is temporary and favors swarming moments (Straw, 2015), or vortices, in which they take a provisional shape in order to achieve a shared common sense.
 A circulatory set of information flows that come together with the representations of a discursive act or an object, which marks a moment of coherence and significance of the said flow of representations in a given context. (Straw, 2015)
 “Digital transformation is a fundamentally cultural paradigmatic change centered on the customer’s experience and commitment that occurs in a hyperconnectivity environment and is characterized by cooperation in all activities of the value chain. Based on the use of (disruptive) technologies and new business models and competences, it affects multiple change-inducing organizational innovations, with particular emphasis on business processes and models and, at the same time, on people.” (Delgado, 2020)