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An Eye for Equity and Emerging Tech, CIO James Weaver Charts a Course

With an election that promises to usher in a new administration for North Carolina, CIO James Weaver is focusing his energy on improving the foundations of state IT while also embracing new — and unstoppable — technologies.

North Carolina CIO James Weaver
David Kidd/Government Technology
With an election on the horizon and new technologies seeping into the public-sector space, the North Carolina Department of Information Technology (NCDIT) remains focused on the foundational work of state IT.

According to CIO James Weaver, this critical work includes expanded digital equity and connectivity efforts, data security, and a deeper exploration of emerging tech resources.

“At the end of the day, technology is the underpinning of functional business processes,” he said.

At the core of NCDIT's approach is digital equity. Weaver says the agency has been tackling barriers to accessibility from a cost and geographical perspective over the past few years.

“I hate to say, 'addressing the digital divide' because it's going to be a digital continuum,” he explained. “Currently, we have over 875,000 households in North Carolina registered for the Affordable Connectivity Program, and we’re continuing [on] the road to getting over 1.11 million people connected. There will be geographical challenges here because it’s a mountainous region, but we have $90 million designated for stopgap measures, such as fixed wireless and low-Earth orbiting satellites.”

The NCDIT is also working to ensure ease of use for those with access to digital services — with the award-winning platform Digital Commons at the forefront. The platform, launched in 2016 with an update in 2022, provides a responsive design that integrates 80 state websites into one platform, enabling state government agencies to deliver services, resources and information to users in a more streamlined way.

“We’re proud of what we’ve accomplished through the Digital Commons project because it shows we're not individual entities,” Weaver said. “We all make up the state government of North Carolina, and this project represents all agencies as one.”

But with the increased reliance on digital platforms, NCDIT must also focus on ensuring data security and privacy measures are in place to safeguard citizen and employee data. For Weaver, a synergetic approach to cybersecurity and privacy is the key.

“Our approach includes state agencies, county government, municipal government, K-12, the UNC [University of North Carolina] system, the community college system, etc.,” Weaver said. “If one of us is attacked or has a cyber incident, we're all responding through what we call our joint Cyber Task Force, which my agency is part of, along with our colleagues in the Emergency Management division, our National Guard resources, CIO groups and the North Carolina Local Government Information Systems Association.”

And because cybersecurity and privacy are two sides of the same coin, the NCDIT brought on Cherie Givens, the state’s first chief privacy officer (CPO) in 2021. Givens is also forging a path — from a policy and regulatory perspective — to help advance the state’s usage of AI.

“Our focus is specifically on publicly available generative AI because that's where our concerns are, so we're currently going through evaluations and looking at additional vendor offerings that will allow us to work with our data sets and do some of the things that we believe the power of generative AI can accomplish for us,” Weaver said.

The CPO is helping the NCDIT craft an AI framework to meet its future goals.

“We're not calling it a policy because policies have a way of being etched in stone, but we want to make sure that we recognize the fact that AI is going to be constantly changing, and a framework has a lot more agility for us to be able to account for the nuances of what's coming down the pipe,” Weaver explained.

In NCDIT’s statewide IT procurement office, they’ve begun conducting use cases around AI and incorporating various chatbots and some robotic process automation, according to Weaver. Even with these use cases underway, he believes more work is needed to ensure that employees are educated and trained for new tools like generative AI.

“If you don't have the right data sources or information feeding into the system, you’re not going to get the output you're looking for,” he said.

Human resource departments are increasingly creating prompt engineer positions — essentially application developers that ensure the correct ask or input is going into generative AI systems to retrieve an accurate output — training seems more vital than ever.

“Education is power in this case because the bias or implicit bias that is sometimes associated with generative AI can be overcome by ensuring a diverse set of contributors and stakeholders are trained on the software and engaged across the table,” Weaver said.

Looking toward NCDIT’s future, Weaver believes change management will be key to maintaining progress on the IT front — with the looming November 2024 election ultimately deciding which direction their initiatives will go.

“A new administration may pivot and go in a different direction from what Gov. Cooper's been doing for the last seven-plus years,” Weaver concluded. “So, I want to make sure we have some solid foundational building blocks for whoever the incoming administration is so that we can continue to build upon what we have in place if they elect to do so.”

Regardless, digital transformation will remain at the forefront and heart of NCDIT’s strategic plan to transform how government interacts with residents as they work to get people connected digitally and ensure data is safe and secure.

“These are the questions we ask ourselves. Are we getting to the best possible outcomes on our modernization efforts? Are we getting to a cost-effective price point for taxpayers?” Weaver said. “Because we're here for the residents of North Carolina and to essentially arrive at the best outcome for each of them.”

Editor's note: This story was updated to reflect the launch date of the Digital Commons platform and the number of agencies it hosts.
Ashley Silver is a staff writer for Government Technology. She holds an undergraduate degree in journalism from the University of Montevallo and a graduate degree in public relations from Kent State University. Silver is also a published author with a wide range of experience in editing, communications and public relations.