In April, the General Services Administration created a community of practice (CoP) for robotic process automation technology (RPA) to help federal IT leaders collaborate and determine how they could best use RPA.
Now, it’s starting to gain traction — at least at certain agencies such as the IRS, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Defense Department.
Speaking at the CoP’s first industry day earlier this month in Washington, D.C., Federal CIO Suzette Kent said the Trump administration can speed the deployment of RPA and automation technology in government by fostering a “strong working relationship” between the mission and technology leadership at agencies, according to Federal News Network.
RPA allows organizations to automate certain repetitive tasks — often mundane and tedious work that users do not want to spend much time doing.
“Just because automation can minimize repetitive, manual tasks, that doesn’t mean we should automate an ineffective process just because it’s easy or you hate doing it. We should continue to aspire to design better processes,” Kent said, according to Federal News Network.
True digital transformation via RPA will come when agencies reconsider how they do tasks and coordinate with other agencies. “This not only changes the nature of work. It changes how we work together,” Kent said.
The IRS, FDA and DOD Embrace RPA
The IRS is one of the agencies that have been enthusiastic about RPA. The agency expects to save more than 18,000 work hours through RPA pilots it rolled out in its procurement office. They help out IRS staff in the last quarter of the fiscal year, when workloads pick up.
Harrison Smith, the IRS’s deputy chief procurement officer, said that the amount of work his office has had to complete in the fourth quarter of each fiscal year has increased by 10 percent over the past five years, Federal News Network reports. At the same time, funding has decreased.
“Continually asking personnel to do more and more with less and less — it’s not something that’s feasible or tenable in the long-run,” Smith said in a call with reporters.
IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig told Congress in April that roughly 45 percent of the IRS’ total workforce will be eligible for retirement within the next two years.
“With those numbers, 100 people could walk out today,” Smith said. “And so, helping folks do the work within a reasonable amount of time — helping those folks understand how they can shift out of maybe doing manual paperwork tasks into something that’s more relevant and more pertinent is simply going to enable and empower and make them more enthusiastic.”
Smith notes that RPA deployments will vary from agency to agency. “They’re not all going to look the same,” he said at the industry event, according to Nextgov. “You have to make sure that if it’s an automation solution for another environment that you have the technology [people] and you have the systems integrators able to talk to the people who are actually performing the work.”
Meanwhile, the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research has been developing seven RPA projects as it looks to free up staff to focus on higher-level tasks, FedScoop reports.
CDER ensures drugs on the market are safe and effective and regulates them throughout their lifecycles, according to FedScoop. Many CDER employees have pharmaceutical science or medical degrees but often spend a lot of time on repetitive, manual tasks.
“Some of the activity is done by staff, with very advanced degrees, that would rather not do these kinds of tasks,” Ranjit Thomas, CDER informatics program management lead, told FedScoop. CDER estimates its RPA projects in development will save 24,000 work hours per year, including those in which bots schedule meetings and assign letters.
The Pentagon is also enthusiastic about RPA. At a Sept. 18 Association of Government Accountants event, Erica Thomas, the RPA program manager for the DOD’s Comptroller’s Office, said that RPA has the potential to reshape how federal workers get their jobs done.
“When computers were introduced into the workforce, however many years ago, there was a lot of concern that these are going to replace people's jobs,” Thomas said at the event, according to FCW. “Now when you look around, people have different jobs, they have different things to focus on, they’re more efficient. So, I don't view RPA as a replacement factor at all, it's more of an upscaling and redirecting resources to appropriate tasks.”