Robotic process automation (RPA) may no longer be the shiny new car of emerging technologies in government, but nonetheless, many agencies are hopping onto the bandwagon of the workhorse technology that automates repetitive and instruction-based tasks. They’re spurred by federal encouragement, success stories and promises of business value.
“Agencies are constantly meeting together, saying, ‘How do you do this? Can I see a copy of your ATO [Authority to Operate]?” said Jennifer Hill, Management and Program Analyst at Treasury’s Bureau of the Fiscal Service. Hill and others spoke about RPA on a Monday morning panel at ACT-IAC’s Executive Leadership Conference in Philadelphia.
RPA is no longer newly trodden ground in government, and as such, agencies have developed best practices to use the technology, making it more successful and more likely to catch on. The Treasury and Defense (DoD) departments are two prominent investors in RPA, which is well-suited for processes such as financial transactions and data entry.
Reza Rashidi, Executive Lead for Robotics Process and Intelligent Automation at the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), which sits within Treasury, identified five key steps for bringing in automation. Rashidi recommended: 1) defining program goals, 2) conducting pilots, 3) setting up operating models, 4) building centers of excellence and 5) standing up shared services.
Government IT employees might recognize the themes of starting small and saving costs in Rashidi’s list. Also important, he noted, is to prove the overall mission value of tech projects to business leaders.
Speaking on the panel, Rashidi advised that RPA should not be thought of as a “part of IT strategy,” but a “component of IT strategy” – in other words, emphasizing the idea of RPA as a means rather than an end.
Erica Thomas, Co-leader of DoD’s RPA consortium, added onto Rashidi’s advice, remarking that demonstrable, fact-based anecdotes help get others on board. Those who are resistant to RPA, she said, are often unclear on exactly what the technology is.
“What they want is a detailed story behind the RPA,” Thomas said. “They want the vignettes.”
DoD’s vignettes come backed up by statistics and supported by recommendations.
Washington Headquarters Services, a small DoD branch providing essential administrative support, faced a backlog of more than 12,000 unmatched disbursements. After bringing in RPA, within seven months, that number fell to 4,000, with 77% faster processing times and a 95% success rate.
The success of RPA has engendered a new interest in the disbursement process altogether. Thomas said she wonders whether machine learning can be applied to the front end of the process to streamline the research element that takes employees hundreds of hours a month.
Success for Thomas and DoD has come not only by telling stories but also by listening to them. DoD has gone about setting up RPA communities of interest and centers of excellence. Through these efforts, the military can dispel myths of RPA implementations taking jobs.
“Frankly, I would say, it’s an employee morale booster,” Thomas said “When we go out and share ideas for RPA projects, I’ve never had somebody say, ‘Oh we don’t want that.’ Typically, it’s: ‘Help me.'”
RPA is pitched to elevate the work that employees do by assuming the repetitive tasks that overwhelm them. Employees can then turn their attention to higher-value, thought-intensive activities.
So, while RPA is not replacing jobs, it is changing them, Thomas commented.
Welcoming the change, the General Services Administration (GSA) has invested in a program to train full-time personnel in developing RPA. Mark Grgurich was one of 13 employees in the spring of 2018 who began the training. After undergoing months of online coursework, passing a final exam and working part-time on projects, he transitioned to working with RPA full-time as a developer. GSA has 50 people in its program, Grgurich added.
This type of reskilling is a federal priority. Similar efforts have been introduced by the administration – with the most prominent example being training full-time employees in cyber with the hope of preparing today’s workforce for tomorrow’s threats. The Federal Cybersecurity Reskilling Academy graduated its second class in September 2019.
While some employees will work directly with the technologies, others will only work alongside them. Labor unions, an audience member said, had sometimes opposed the approach of disruptive technologies. Thomas acknowledged the claim but countered that progress can be made that accompanies the interests of labor and business.
“In most cases, every situation I’ve heard of, having that dialogue and discussion has resolved nearly every business concern,” Thomas said.
Thomas did warn, however, that RPA could be overpromised. She urged advocates to shy away from referring to “ROI,” or return on investment, when pushing for RPA. The term carries the implication that agencies will save costs on the bottom line, which wouldn’t be the case without workforce reductions, she said.
Instead, RPA unshackles the workforce from repetitive activities, clearing the way to higher-value work and innovation.