Accountants often get a bad rap. In the popular American TV show “The Office,” everybody’s favorite mid-sized paper company, Dunder Mifflin, employs the accounting trio of Kevin Malone, Angela Martin and Oscar Martinez – the last of whom is actually a cool and normal guy. The first two, however, are hardly glowing reflections of the accounting profession.
Kevin is “slow-moving, inattentive, dull” and shows a lack of motivation. Meanwhile, Angela, while far surpassing Kevin in intellect, is uptight and cold. Again, Oscar seems nice.
These are more caricatures than characters of real life, of course, but it goes to show what people think of accountants.
Well, the truth is accountants in real life offer much more excitement than these three satirical characters. And as a final aside, Kevin technically should have been working in the warehouse anyway.
In reality, accountants in governments are often on the cutting edge and have some of the strongest business cases for incorporating emerging technologies. In finance, the potential of emerging technologies is that of science fiction proportions.
Oftentimes, accounting offices don’t only incorporate these technologies in government but also often bring them to the table. Pilots in robotic process automation (RPA), artificial intelligence (AI) and blockchain are in the works now.
“A little over a year ago, I couldn’t have told you what RPA stood for,” Ed Burrows, RPA Program Manager for the General Services Administration (GSA), said.
Burrows spoke with others last week at the Association of Government Accountants’ 2019 National Leadership Training, which included a panel about the incorporation of emerging technologies across government.
Now, GSA has 12 live bots and a target of 25 by the end of the financial year. After the request for RPA was first made, Burrows’ department had 100 days to develop the bots – which can work in a variety of fields.
Burrows said that GSA has both production and testing environments for RPA, which makes implementation simpler. He also recommended prioritizing business value and surveying the user community for shared experiences for successful rollouts.
That’s a message that was echoed by Mike Wetklow, Deputy Chief Financial Officer and Division Director at the National Science Foundation (NSF). NSF has implemented three bots over the past year, including one that automates fund balances.
“Now we’re starting to move to more advanced things, like AI,” Wetklow said. “Now we’re moving into blockchain.”
Despite its potential, adopting automation provides several challenges for agency leadership.
As Burrows explained, the technology itself can be learned by watching enough YouTube videos, but creating a successful business case and scaling it across departments is far more difficult. Picking the right technology and case, communicating value to the workforce and ensuring security throughout are all steps for creating successful programs.
Teresa Hunter, Deputy Director for the Office of Financial Management within the Interior Department (DOI), said that explaining and demonstrating how RPA bots operate on computers attracted the most impactful use cases and reduced apprehension. Working with security throughout the process, DOI now has a bot that works in closing out contracts – a previously onerous and often elongated task.
Burrows recommended data entry as a launching pad for RPA technology. It’s a simple, repetitive task that can be easily scaled because of its widespread necessity and proneness to manual error.
He also urged people to consider the benefits of RPA when surveying use cases. Besides speed and efficiency, bots can reduce error, run continuously, ensure compliance and free up valuable time.
If some of the technology seems foreign and newfangled from afar, it’s astounding in person as well, panelists agreed – so much so that even the names are a matter of contention.
Instead of “The Office,” Wetklow asked his employees to look to “Star Wars” for cinematic inspiration. The bot that automates central accounting reporting systems, named by NSF employees, is now affectionately called FS2D2.