People Plus Machine: North Dakota’s Future Workforce

Recently, North Dakota Chief Information Officer (CIO) Shawn Riley captured headlines with a TED Talk titled “Why You Should Want to Be Replaced by a Computer.” While his presentation discussed automation and invention’s historical record of generating more exciting, higher-value jobs, Riley’s talk, and its title, also played to a common fear: Will robots put humans out of work?

Following Riley’s speech, GovLoop spoke with other automation leaders in North Dakota’s government – Chief Technology Officer (CTO) Duane Schell and Chief Data Officer (CDO) Dorman Bazzell. They addressed a number of topics, including automation use cases, best practices and workforce impacts.

This interview has been edited lightly for length and clarity.

GovLoop: What’s robotic process automation (RPA) being used for in North Dakota?

Schell: Robotic process automation is one of the key tools in our toolkit, looking at a larger automation strategy. We are still in the process of standing that infrastructure up, so in parallel, we are building the infrastructure to leverage RPA, as well as looking at a multitude of processes.

Bazzell: If I can add on that just a little bit, we have about 20% of our state government employees over the next four years who are eligible for retirement. So that equates to somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 people that we anticipate over that four-year period who will leave. What we have walking out the door is a lot of tribal knowledge, plus a lot of knowledge in a lot of manual processes. We are on the journey to start automating those processes.

When you look at automation for actually filling some of those gaps, what does it let you do to focus on your workforce in five or 10 years?

Bazzell: Those highly manual processes are gaps, right? Those are gaps in a seamless way of government operating efficiently. RPA allows us to fill in those gaps. But it’s not an endpoint. The other side of the coin is what we’re doing People Plus Machine: North Dakota’s Future Workforce 10 around process improvement. So, if all we’re doing is automating a process, it becomes very unhelpful, because that process is likely very inefficient as it is.

What are some examples of those processes that you are looking to improve, as well as bring this technology into?

Schell: When you talk about what we’re going to do, I think it’s what aren’t we going to do as we look at what the possibilities and what the opportunities are across state government. When you look at almost any process or service across state government, there is some level of very defined repeatable work that is part of the process of delivering almost any service. The traditional areas around RPA are largely from HR and finance, and that’s where we’re focusing some of our initial efforts. But when we look at our human services area, I think we see a tremendous amount of opportunity.

What are you doing to prepare the workforce for once some of these tasks that might occupy 10 to 20% of what they do day to day are automated?

Bazzell: Certainly, there’s training. We have courses that we are using throughout the state around leadership anywhere.

Schell: What we’re doing as part of automation in that environment, and kind of bringing them up to speed is, step one, walk us through your process. Help us understand what a day in the life looks like, and then as we understand that process, we can better shape technology.

Is automation something that could eventually reduce the size of the workforce?

Schell: What the policymakers choose to do, I can’t speak towards. But, I think across the board through automation, we have the opportunity to improve the quality, responsiveness and depth of service that the citizens want, and need, from the state. So, may there be a time when policymakers change and downsize? I can’t speak to that. But short term, I don’t see any of that happening, just simply because of the backlog that already exists across state government.

Technology is just a tool that we use, where appropriate, to serve the citizens of the state. Across the board, there are massive amounts of demand, in terms of how we might serve the citizens in a more effective, better way. So, you know, I don’t see the technology as reducing the workforce. I see the technology as enhancing the quality of the service that the citizens get, and frankly expect, from our agencies and the services they offer.

Bazzell: And the “extended” part, and that’s the word Duane used, is really extending the capabilities of the human to do more efficient work. And in our case, it’s extending the ability of state workers to enhance the experience and services for our citizens.

This article is an excerpt from GovLoop’s recent report, “Getting Started: Answering Your Questions About Robotic Process Automation.” Download the full report here.


Photo credit: Wes Hicks on Unsplash

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