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How to Start an RPA Project at Your Agency

The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has made clear that agencies should be adopting technologies such as robotic process automation (RPA) to shift employees from doing mundane and manual processes to more high-value work that supports the mission.

But the challenge for many agencies is wrapping their heads around what RPA entails and how to get started. What process is a good candidate for RPA and how do you practically redirect employees who have spent years doing a certain task to now do something else?

Those were among the questions and concerns addressed at the General Services Administration’s (GSA) emerging technology symposium, “Future Services Now,” which featured half-day panels on topics ranging from RPA and artificial intelligence to blockchain and IT modernization.

The RPA sessions featured panelists from GSA, OMB, the Defense Department (DoD), the Food and Drug Administration and several private-sector companies, including Deloitte and Uipath, that are helping agencies adopt the technology.

OMB’s Curtina Smith helped to kick the discussion off by sharing more insights around the administration’s efforts to use its burden reduction initiative to drive RPA. Smith reiterated that the focus is on understanding how RPA can drive burden reduction efforts, such as reducing unnecessary and duplicative reporting requirements.

“We are not looking to phase you out,” Smith said in response to an attendee’s concern about RPA replacing jobs. “The message is that in the long term it might end up being that way, but for now we are focusing on [moving from] low-value to high-value work.”

Smith added that in some industries job replacement is the focus, but that is not the focus of the federal government. She also reiterated that agencies are expected to reskill employees and train them to take on tasks that add more value to the agency’s mission.

She said OMB is working with the burden reduction points of contact at each agency to understand what data points would be important to share so that the administration can drive governmentwide adoption of technologies such as RPA. There will be a data collection call in the near future to understand what RPA projects agencies are using to drive burden reduction.

Christopher Rose with Deloitte explained that with RPA you are not divorcing the humans from the process. “You need that expertise from the human,” he said. You need to have the people to answer exceptions to any business process because bots won’t do that. When you consider all the backlogs of work that agencies are faced with, people need assistance tackling that work. And that’s where bots can help.

So now that agencies have been put on notice that RPA is the way of the future for government, where do they start?

6 Steps to RPA Adoption at GSA

Alicia Saucedo de Flores with GSA’s Office of the Chief Financial Officer shared a six-step process that her team uses to roll out RPA projects:

  1. Intake
  2. Prioritize
  3. Evaluate/Optimize
  4. Develop
  5. Deploy
  6. Operate and maintain.

Saucedo de Flores focused on steps one through three, which can help agencies figure out how to get started with RPA. When deciding what processes could be suitable candidates for RPA, she advised agencies to look at organizational pain points, or the things that employees often complain about, such as data entry, uploading documents or repetitive tasks.

“We call them zombie processes,” she said.

Saucedo de Flores shared a heat map that her team at GSA uses to find projects that hit the sweet spot of providing benefit to the agency and addressing complexity concerns. They take into account the number of hours they could save, process cycle time, number of systems the process touches and the number of steps it takes to do a task.

GSA has an intake process, so anyone within the organization can submit an idea using a Google form. The form explains what RPA is and why GSA wants employees’ ideas. “This gives us initial information to make the first cut of projects coming in,” she said.

Then the leadership team looks at the projects that employees submitted while taking into consideration current processes, how many staff hours are required for that process per month, the number of systems that are involved and the frequency of errors. It’s during this stage you may find that certain processes should be eliminated altogether and not automated.

The evaluation and optimization stage comes after you’ve chosen a project and you are looking at developing it for the future.

Currently, GSA is using RPA to automate purchase card submissions into the agency’s financial system. Using a bot to do this work has saved GSA upward of 500 labor hours a month.

Security is another aspect of RPA that agencies must focus on early and often. Security and issuing an authority to operate can be roadblocks if you don’t address them early on, said Christine Gex with the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army (DASA).

Another roadblock to watch out for is how to do credentialing around bots (think PIV and CAC cards). When Gex was at NASA, she was able to get a CAC card for the bot to run unattended on a system, meaning a person did not have to physically oversee all the work a bot was doing because the bot operated autonomously. She is navigating how that could be introduced at DoD, where Gex and her team are currently running attended bots that require human interaction.

In terms of security and RPA, Gex summed up her thoughts in seven words: “we have to get ahead of it.”

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Declan Riordan

The federal government has been working to make it clear that RPA isn’t going to replace workers, but it remains a concern for many employees. Maybe more steps need to be taken to explain the training process that will keep people relevant in an automated workplace?