The storied election of Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper over incumbent Republican Pat McCrory signaled a nearly inevitable change for North Carolina CIO Keith Werner. The once deputy CIO turned CIO in December of 2015 was asked on Jan. 25 to step aside after assisting the new administration with its transition.
Though Werner was asked to step down, the former CIO told Government Technology that the opportunity to aid in the transition of power was one he deeply appreciated. The public-sector champion said that while it will be difficult to transition out of state service and away from his team, there are potential private-sector opportunities for him on the horizon.
“It was a wonderful opportunity and one that I am always going to be grateful to Gov. McCrory and Chris Estes, the previous CIO, for,” he said. “I’ve learned so much in the position, but the thing that … I am most proud of is the people — incredible staff, incredible leadership team — with the purpose of mission and really a civic responsibility to not only the citizens but to our agency customers. I am very, very proud of the people first and foremost.”
Prior to his tenure in North Carolina government, Werner’s career spanned more than two decades working closely to support government as a private-industry player. Though his official employment with the state closed with the end of the business day Jan. 26, Werner said he may have another opportunity to pursue in the very near term.
During his time with the state, the CIO and his team made headway in consolidating resources, developing a feasible but forward-looking strategic plan, tackling issues like rate reform and streamlining procurement processes.
As Government Technology reported in August 2016, Werner and the department focused their energies on the building a more cohesive IT structure throughout the state with the OneIT initiative, and they also worked to bolster stronger relationships both internally and externally.
As for what he sees as the challenges facing the next CIO, Werner said it completely depends on where they are coming from.
“I think it’s going to largely depend on whether they are bringing somebody in from the outside, or they are bringing somebody in from internal state government,” he said. “Coming from [an external source], it would be understanding the legislative process, understanding the budgeting process, understanding the number of stakeholders involved in the decisions that are made and how to execute within all of those constraints. That would be a challenge.”
For someone who is familiar with the state and how to get things done, however? "I think it’s really getting to know the people," he said, "it’s getting to know what strategies are in place, what reform efforts are in place and empowering that wonderful staff there to get things done.”
With the administrative transition and departure now in his rearview mirror, Werner was asked to weigh in on the benefits or pitfalls of linking partisan politics to the CIO role. While he said he was grateful to the new administration for allowing him to assist with the handoff of IT leadership, he acknowledged that there are some downsides to the way things are done in the C-suite spot.
From the perspective that state IT’s ultimate goal is to empower the government business operations, Werner said he would like to see more continuity in the overall position.
“To answer your questions specifically, I don’t think it is a political role. I think there are some policies in place that are guided and steered through the Department of Information Technology and the state CIO’s role, but I still don’t believe the position should be a partisan position,” he said. “Seeing those strategies and those reform efforts through long-term, I think, is critical and I think it’s in the best interest of the state. I still think we have a long way to go politically to get there … but that is a lot of turnover and a lot of disruption in a department that I don’t think is needed.”
Werner also noted that he will continue to be a fan of his state government colleagues from afar.