How Robotic Process Automation Will Help Agencies

RPA adoption, which is slowly increasing across government, will allow federal IT workers to shift to higher-value work and save agencies money.

Many agencies have started to deploy chatbots to aid in customer service, and some agencies, such as the Department of Health and Human Services, are incorporating robotic process automation to improve their acquisition strategy

While RPA adoption is further along in the private sector, it is still relatively early for the technology in government. However, that is starting to change, according to Edward Burrows, robotics process automation program manager at the General Services Administration. RPA allows organizations to automate certain repetitive tasks — often mundane and tedious work that users do not want to spend much time doing. 

RPA adoption will increase across agencies over time, Burrows predicted, and will also change the nature of how employees do their jobs, shifting them “from low-value to high-value work,” he said in January at an ACT-IAC conference in Washington, D.C., according to Federal News Network

“We shouldn’t be hiring for positions that can be automated. That becomes a dead-end job,” Burrows said. “We should think about automation first.”

MORE FROM FEDTECH: Find out how voice assistants can streamline customer service for agencies. 

RPA Will Boost Savings, Transform Agencies’ Work

GSA, the IRS and the State Department have been testing RPA tools in recent years. Burrows said since GSA’s RPA effort began in 2018, the agency has rolled out deployment of about one RPA “bot” per month, MeriTalk reports.

RPA helps agencies with menial tasks such as copying and pasting text into forms, and so its wider adoption may hurt lower-skilled employees. 

“What we’re finding so far is many of the jobs are being done by mid-level employees, and so it’s actually very easy to move them to more valuable work. They immediately know what they can do with their time,” Burrows said, according to Federal News Network. “We have another group of people who are lower-skilled, lower-grade-level — that’s a more challenging situation.”

So far, RPA has not produced dramatic cost savings, but will over time as some jobs are eliminated and federal employees are put to work on more high-value tasks. “You don’t get cost savings immediately because the people aren’t leaving,” Burrows said. “But if you look over the next 10-15 years, there’s a wave of retirements coming.”

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Over time, as federal IT roles change, agencies may be able to attract higher-level talent with more in-demand technology skills, Burrows argued. For example, future IT jobs could involve managing a whole fleet of RPA bots and monitoring their performance. 

“That’s a much more appealing type of job for a young person, so there are a lot of long-term benefits to the government,” he said.

GSA is trying to build up its capacity to develop RPA and has trained about a dozen people in the CFO’s office to develop bots, according to Federal News Network. 

“We’re considering should we have a small central team of full-time people? Should we allow part-time people? I’m finding it’s not easy to scale up,” Burrows said. 

“I hear in the private sector, companies have thousands of bots running. To be honest, I can’t imagine,” he said. “I mean, what kind of development capacity do they have? How many people would you need, and what kind of monthly rate of deployment of bots would you have to have?”

Burrows also added that, so far, GSA has not done anything that is “truly AI” with its RPA tools. “All of our use cases are RPA,” he said, adding that RPA “gives you the appearance of being intelligent, but it’s really just code.”

AndreyPopov/Getty Images
Feb 12 2019

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