Meet the Robots Running Governments

Image credit: iStockphoto/Brankospejs

Robotic process automation (RPA) is a big focus for governments, and there are some major implementations underway, but also some pitfalls for those who rush in.

According to a Gartner survey, 19% of Government respondents said they are already using RPA in 2021, and another 33% said they intended to deploy in the next two years.

The popularity of RPA is expanding across governments for several reasons. First of all, it is not seen as sophisticated or comprehensive, and as a result, CIOs see it as a quick win which — according to Gartner — can deliver “speed to value.”

Many view it as a “cheap” way of delivering workplace and process efficiencies and delivering a better user experience to government stakeholders — the public — frustrated at long queues, terrible music as they wait on their phones, and too much red tape.

In many cases, RPA can automate legacy processes as part of modernization strategies, which delivers some quick wins at a low cost. In Gartner’s 2019 Legacy Modernization Survey, 24% of government respondents said they used RPA as part of an IT modernization strategy.

The RPA overhype

As with so many implementations, however, RPA is not as easy as it seems.

According to a recent report by Gartner analysts Dean Lacheca and Cathy Tornbohm, some government organizations risk overhyping the results while underestimating the total cost of ownership.

“This includes the additional tools that are required to structure or digitalize content, the shift in accountability for business process performance, and the challenges associated with scaling,” their report says.

In other words, it’s not just a case of getting the RPA out of a box and connecting it up.

A whole stack of work has to go into preparing the process before it can automate. Some of this additional work is likely to have a knock effect on systems and the way people work around them.

For RPA, the authors see the areas of opportunity fall under two themes: streamlining administration and optimizing processes.

Under the first theme, areas that can be streamlined are finance, procurement, payroll, recruitment, HR, and the IT Help Desk.

In terms of optimizing processes, the opportunities are in the contact center, application processing, registration, case management, grants management, and compliance validation.

To get the best out of any of these areas requires a structured approach that reviews processes and identifies a roadmap.

“The business case for an RPA solution can be built based on these benefits, balanced against what is seen as a low cost of entry,” the authors said. “But most RPA customers struggle with the total cost of ownership, particularly from the ongoing maintenance of RPA scripts applied to technology and processes.”

“Government CIOs must also keep in mind misconceptions about what a successful implementation represents, especially when RPA is used to extend the life of legacy applications by creating savings that mask the inefficiencies,” they added.

RPA, they noted, should not be seen as the end in itself, as if it has fixed the problem. A business case must be built which includes RPA as part of the journey, not as the destination in itself.

Governments see benefits

Those caveats and warnings notwithstanding, government organizations are seeing value from RPA.

In November 2020, a U.S. Government assessment was published in the State of Federal RPA Report that stated: “Preliminary results from the 23 programs assessed convey the annualized hours saved by automations deployed increased from 285,651 to 848,336, a 195% increase.”

In the U.K., Wiltshire Council has been, in its words, “welcoming a team of digital assistants to the workforce.”

The council’s payroll team was the first to benefit, and automating time-critical, labor-intensive processes has given staff the space to focus on where they can add the best value. 

Another ten processes will go live in the coming months, with many more in the pipeline.

The Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore (IRAS) has been one of the first public-sector agencies in Singapore to pilot and subsequently adopt the use of RPA, delivering cost savings and process improvements for IRAS to benefit its taxpayers and internal stakeholders. 

RPA was piloted with six use cases from four of IRAS’s 14 divisions. As part of IRAS’s plans for an empowered digital workforce, business users were involved in the end-to-end RPA processes from identifying potential processes for RPA adoption, suitability assessment, scripting, testing, and eventual running of the RPA.

By the end of 2019, more than 100 RPA use cases had been deployed in production, involving 11 divisions in IRAS. 

One positive outcome is that taxpayers no longer need to speak to a tax officer to request an extended time to file a tax return.

They simply make that request via the interactive voice response system and receive an automated short message reply from IRAS by the next working day.

The journey has only just begun

These case study examples show the benefits of RPA but also illustrate that many leading government agencies are only now at the beginning of their journeys with the technology.

Gartner’s overarching advice is for organizations to drive this through their automation and re-engineering centers of excellence, working with counterparts through the whole of government to share experiences and lessons.

This will identify standard use cases, allow for efficient replication, and build up the in-house capability so that working with vendors is smoother. Organizations can then begin these conversations from a position of knowledge rather than implementing what vendors tell them to do.

Because if they did that, the humans would be the ones acting like robots, and that’s not the way to get value.

It is much better for humans to prepare the workplace, welcome new robot colleagues, and get them working efficiently alongside them from day one.

Lachlan Colquhoun is the Australia and New Zealand correspondent for CDOTrends and DigitalWorkforceTrends, and the editor of NextGen Connectivity. His fascination is with how businesses are reinventing themselves through digital technology and collaborate with others to become completely new organizations. You can reach him at [email protected].

Image credit: iStockphoto/Brankospejs