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OMB Directs Robotic Process Automation in Federal Agencies

Federal agencies have been directed to move toward robotic process automation (RPA) in an effort to reduce the burden of low-value work.

In an Aug. 27 memorandum published by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), Director Mick Mulvaney explained the need for a shift from low-value work — such as time spent complying with unnecessary and obsolete policies, guidance and reporting requirements — to high-value work that supports mission-critical objectives.

“Each year, Federal employees devote tens of thousands of hours to low-value compliance activities from rules and requirements that have built up over decades,” Mulvaney said.

The memo continues on to provide three broad steps for agencies to take to reduce low-value work: (1) Designate a point of contact, (2) Develop and implement strategies for shifting resources to high-value activities and (3) Provide semi-annual updates on agency initiatives and progress.

A key component in the second step targeting shifting resources, RPA uses software bots to automate repetitive, rule-based tasks, such as copying and pasting information from one system to another or reconciling financial accounts.

This topic of workforce efficiencies follows up on a 2017 OMB memorandum encouraging the reduction of burden on federal agencies through the removal or modification of outdated memoranda. Both of these memos were created in support of the President’s Management Agenda (PMA), which has been centered around the modernization of the federal workforce. Mulvaney emphasized the recent memorandum’s support of the PMA.

“The [PMA] prioritizes reducing the burden of… low-value activities and redirecting resources to accomplishing mission outcomes that matter most to citizens,” the memo reads.

A large component of this burden comes from “repetitive administrative tasks” at agencies, a hurdle addressed by both the PMA and the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) via the publication of identical research regarding the potential for automation in the workplace. This research indicated that 5 percent of occupations could be automated entirely, while 45 percent of total work activities could be automated.

In OPM’s Federal Workplace Priorities Report, preparation for the role of RPA and its potential impact on workers was also a consideration. The report lists “cultivating soft skills in the workforce” and “positioning the organization for flexibility and adaptability” as possible steps to take in the event of increased use of RPA.

The report also indicated a prediction regarding the timeline for the advance of automation in workplaces, suggesting a two-phase process with a “technological plateau” in-between, as well as some of the types of jobs that will be affected.

“The first phase, thought to be possible in the next two decades, would affect areas such as transportation and logistics work, most administrative and office occupations, and construction,” the report reads. “The types of work affected in this first phase are largely manual labor jobs and jobs that do not require high social intelligence.”

The second phase will resume after the stated plateau, “when engineers are able to artificially simulate creative and social skills,” and will be more difficult to predict the effect. This phase will include jobs involving skills in persuasion, care and fine arts.

For more information and updates on the PMA and steps being taken toward government modernization, Performance.gov provides details on the priority goals and strategic plans for individual federal agencies.

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Profile Photo Mark Hensch

What a time to be alive! It’ll be interesting seeing how AI plays out in government workforces. The second phase after the “technological plateau” is particularly unpredictable. Where will this tech head next?