Jul 06 2020

What Is Robotic Process Automation and How Does It Benefit Federal IT?

RPA technology helps agencies save time by automating mundane tasks, and its use has accelerated recently.

More than a year ago, in April 2019, the General Services Administration created a community of practice for robotic process automation technology to help federal leaders explore opportunities, share ideas and work together on how robotic process automation could best be implemented at their agencies.

RPA use in government has been on the rise for a few years. The GSA has an ambitious goal in mind for 2020 and beyond when it comes to RPA: It aims to help civilian agencies free up nearly $1 billion worth of productive time across government by using the technology.

However, the coronavirus pandemic led to an accelerated use of RPA tools in government as agencies sought to increase productivity and make up for the fact that few workers were in offices due to stay-at-home orders. Some bots even helped with the response to the pandemic. For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is using an RPA bot to enable its own COVID-19 assessment bot

“None of our job descriptions said, ‘You will cut and paste, cut and paste, cut and paste.’ So that’s what RPA is letting us give up,” Stacy Dawn, senior adviser for cybersecurity and privacy at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, said in May, according to Nextgov. “You don’t want to do that work. You want to be able to use your mind and be productive. So, it’s enabling employees to feel more productive.”

What Is Robotic Process Automation?

RPA is commercial automation software that mimics the way a human would complete a task, notes Maureen Fleming, program vice president for integration and process automation at IDC. “Each task is broken down into the steps required to perform the work manually,” she says. “Then different types of automation techniques are applied to each step and chained together into a flow. On playback, each step emulates the human step until the task is completed.”

Sometimes, not every task can be automated, Fleming says. In that instance, the RPA software “runs the automation but pauses for human feedback, then continues running,” she adds

Robert Zebroski, program manager for RPA in the Defense Logistics Agency’s Information Operations department, says that because RPA software mimics human actions to accomplish computer-based activities, it enables “employees to spend more time on higher-value tasks.”

DLA, which provides logistical support to the military, uses RPA to more efficiently respond to Freedom of Information Act requests, in finance and other aspects of its operations.

“At DLA, we define it as an important technology that automates manual, repetitive tasks, returning valuable time to our knowledge workers while speeding up supply chain management practices and furthering our culture of innovation,” he says.

MORE FROM FEDTECH: What should agencies consider before deploying AI?

How to Implement Robotic Process Automation

There are several foundational technology elements needed to make RPA run efficiently and effectively.

Most organizations adopt commercial RPA platforms for task automation, Fleming says. Before the advent of RPA, when a task needed to be automated, software developers would have had to “custom-code the automation or build embedded macros in things like Microsoft Word or Excel,” Fleming says.

“RPA generates the automation in a builder, or studio environment, then initiates the automation through a variety of mechanisms that move the code to a software robot, where it performs the task,” she says. “In essence, the code is built in the platform studio. In production, that code is called up and interpreted and run by a software robot.”

Robotic desktop automation is software that can run on an end user’s computer, Fleming says. Notably, all RPA platforms run in a data center environment, and some RPA platforms run in a public cloud, Fleming says. These cloud-based RPA tools are increasingly packaged as a service, and RPA vendors operate commercial Software as a Service services for RPA. Other vendors provide a hosted private cloud model. 

Automation Anywhere can extend to a hybrid configuration that centrally manages software robots. Those robots can run in the cloud, as agents on end-user computers, and on servers running in enterprise data centers,” Fleming says. 

DLA is using RPA technology to more efficiently respond to Freedom of Information Act requests.

This model allows agencies “to gain benefits from a SaaS operating model while also running some of the software robots privately in the data center,” Fleming says. That offers a “balance of doing work that is confidential and protected by nature while also running other robots securely in the cloud,” she says, adding that IDC expects to see more vendors move to this type of model.

GSA CFO Gerard Badorrek says there is a relatively low barrier to entry for adopting RPA, and that agencies can get started with an RPA pilot by simply installing RPA software on their desktops or in a virtual environment. 

“The technology is relatively easy to learn, and the coding is intuitive. It is fairly easy to build a few automation pilots that demonstrate the potential of RPA,” he says. 

However, to build a robust program, Badorrek says “agencies need to fit RPA within their existing technology infrastructure and requirements,” which requires “partnering with the IT organization and other relevant stakeholders to ensure the software is approved, ensure the authority to operate is achieved, obtain necessary approvals for individual automations (security, privacy and credentialing) and deploy an enterprise RPA platform.”

At DLA, the agency’s initiative to modernize and centralize its applications and platforms allowed it “to implement and grow its RPA program successfully,” Zebroski says.

“As most of our agency applications were accessible via web portals, intranet or internet, it helped make our RPA journey a lot more efficient and smoother,” he says. “Accessing those applications in the same method as a DLA user would, which we were able to do for the DLA RPA bots by creating them as a non-person entity, was one of the key drivers for our success.”

Zebroski says that “achieving this would not have been possible without a solid security component such as a hardware security module. As the DLA’s bots needed to navigate the government landscapes and applications, which use certificate-based authentication, an HSM allowed us to securely store the required private keys for our bot software certificates, which were then used to navigate our applications.”

The DLA has also focused on “scaling efficiently and in a cost-effective manner, which has been possible due to DLA’s pursuit of a cloud-based deployment.”

VIDEO: What are the seldomly asked questions around emerging tech? 

The Benefits of RPA in Government

The use cases for government parallel use cases in business, Fleming notes.

Those use cases include automated Excel-based consolidations, websites to capture changes to data, automated address changes across all government systems requiring the new address, automated filling out of forms and applications, registration processing, claims processing, preparing data, automated ordering, order processing and performing financial validations.

All of those RPA uses speed up work and reduce errors, according to Fleming.

“Task automation projects typically center on benefits that speed up process cycle times by performing more work faster. They reduce errors by replacing manual data entry, they avoid the need for new hires and they stand in when volumes are irregular — for example, in spikey periods tied to different time periods,” Fleming says.

In business, the holiday shopping season causes spikes in activity. For government, the same can be said for tax season for the IRS, or the decennial count for the Census Bureau.

“With RPA, you don’t have to hire as many people during the seasonal peaks,” Fleming says. “So, you get quality, speed, lower seasonal labor costs, more frequent validation work that was previously ignored because of labor costs, etc.”?

GSA has incorporated RPA into critical finance, human resources, IT, procurement and administrative processes, according to Badorrek, and has 58 automations deployed that create over 150,000 hours of annualized workforce capacity. GSA has a pipeline of 25 automations in development that are “aimed at solving agencywide business challenges in both administrative and mission organizations,” Badorrek says.

GSA has been using RPA for several years and has deployed the technology to free up users to focus on higher-value work. Source: GSA

GSA is using RPA to increase the accuracy and quality of businesses processes, as well as compliance and throughput, according to Badorrek. For example, he says, one of GSA’s automations “reduced the time it takes to manually make structured contract modifications from one hour to only six minutes,” with “the added benefit of zero typographical errors and a complete audit trail of the changes.” 

“The contract specialists are now freed up to perform more higher-level analytical work,” Badorrek adds. 

At DLA, the agency has saved more than 200,000 labor hours with the 82 RPA bots it has launched in the past year, DLA CIO George Duchak told FedScoop in late May. DLA had initially estimated that RPA would save 50,000 labor hours.

Zebroski says DLA uses automations in different areas across the enterprise, “with a significant and growing operational impact.”

For example, DLA automates processing of FOIA requests daily to gather solicitation bids from records management and redact sensitive information prior to response by FOIA officers.

In terms of inventory management, the DLA is operating five automations to assist resolution specialists with creation of causative worksheets for transactional reconciliation between the SAP configuration of electronic bank statements and the Distribution Standard System.

In the area of finance, DLA currently employs 13 automations to help with audit readiness and evidential matter, and five automations to assist support agreement managers with managing general terms and conditions and the Treasury Department’s G-Invoicing.

RPA also helps the DLA be “audit-ready by reducing errors and maintaining measurable, documented processes,” Zebroski says.

150,000

The number of hours of annualized workforce capacity GSA has created via RPA bots

Source: GSA

DLA bots are also identifying COVID-19 Post Award Requests, collecting supplier notes and comments and reporting them to DLA supply chain leaders for review and contracting action support, according to Zebroski. “This information ensures DLA provides improved customer support and material availability to the military services and Whole of Government partners we support,” he says.

“Using RPA to accomplish monotonous, repetitive tasks that require little intellectual acumen allows our workforce to focus on higher-value, more complex activities and increase employee satisfaction and morale,” Zebroski adds. “Our highly skilled workforce is able to use their talents in more strategic, value-added activities and address work backlogs they will now have the time to complete.”

RPA uses emerging technology to develop adaptive processes, and allows the DLA to “drive improvements and efficiencies, to provide inventive solutions to the customer and increase our speed to deliver,” Zebroski says.

At its heart, RPA is “about bringing innovation, data and technology together to effectively and efficiently achieve our logistics mission. We believe RPA will allow us to be more agile and responsive to the war fighter and other customers faster and more effectively,” he adds.

READ MORE: Discover why it’s important to have employees on board for an emerging technology deployment.

What Is Intelligent Automation?

Intelligent automation (IA), a related concept, is the addition of actions (or automation techniques) that also utilize artificial intelligence, Fleming says.

These include automated document processing, applying natural language processing to classify email topics to determine how to route them and voice recognition for routing work to queues.

“There is a whole portfolio of discrete activities that can be automated through the application of AI,” Fleming says. “Some people include chatbots into this and other independent AI capabilities. We’re also seeing the addition of AutoML design studios —which configure AI models to a precise skill or capability — Al embedded across all IA and RPA platforms.”

At DLA, Zebroski says, the agency is pursuing intelligent automation by working to implement AI “into existing automations in the areas of document understanding and computer visualization.”

spainter_vfx/Getty Images