The Frances Perkins Building in Washington, D.C., serves as the headquarters of the Labor Department. 

Feb 08 2021

RPA, Hyperconvergence Help the Labor Department Gain Efficiencies

Robotic process automation and HCI are helping the agency modernize its approach to infrastructure and data.

At the Mine Safety and Health Administration, part of the Department of Labor, artificial intelligence digests reams of data related to the black lung disease that plagues coal mine workers.

AI tools sift through a wealth of information to quickly identify abnormalities that can lead to improved worker safety.

As part of its continuing efforts to modernize its technology infrastructure, the DOL is working to automate more of its operations. This starts with robotic process automation technology, or bots, taking over routine tasks that they can do much faster than people.

“Bots will replace what a human does and allow the human to do more high-value work,” Lou Charlier, the DOL’s deputy CIO, tells FedTech.

How Labor Is Modernizing Its Approach to IT

Now the agency is moving toward hyperautomation, layering artificial intelligence and machine learning on top of the bots to provide ultrafast assessments of collected data, helping DOL staff apply it to decision-making.

“The beauty of the bots is that they’re able to do things in real time and at such a quick pace,” Charlier says. “They’re able to ingest all of that data, parse through that data and put it in an output. That just takes a long time for humans and is fraught with the opportunity for errors that we pretty much eliminate. Ultimately, what these do is they save time, they reduce risk and they increase our compliance across the board.”

The benefit of hyperautomation is not simply to speed up routine work but to allow DOL staff to focus on its mission: improving support to the U.S. workforce. That’s also the goal of DOL’s push toward hyperconverged infrastructure, another major modernization effort designed to streamline the agency’s IT infrastructure.

HCI replaces the traditional, three-tier architecture for computing, storage and networking and merges all of those functions into a single hardware box under one management console. By consolidating data and moving more computer operations to the cloud, staff can access those resources wherever they are, which is particularly helpful while they’re working remotely.

“Federal agencies, including DOL, are aiming for better decision-making and greater accountability on real progress based on data via dashboards,” says Dave McClure, principal director of federal CIO advisory services for Accenture Federal Services. “These IT modernization projects will enable federal agencies to improve their cyber posture because of consolidations and moves to cloud.”

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RPA Technology Helps Labor Become More Efficient

In February 2020, DOL partnered with the General Services Administration’s IT Modernization Centers of Excellence, which provide IT modernization support to agencies, to develop three bots for its financial teams.

One of those bots aids a system that selects eligible vendors to work for the federal government and receives about 2,000 requests a year. Each request requires an hour or two for an employee to review. “These bots can perform that task in three minutes, so we’re saving 2,000-plus hours annually,” Charlier says.

Before DOL works with a contractor, the agency conducts research to identify the options available in the marketplace that will meet its criteria for approval. About 45 market research requests come in daily, and as many as 150 a day can come in during peak times, Charlier says. Employees spend eight to 16 hours on each request, compared with less than an hour’s work for the bot, gleaning an annual savings of about 3,500 hours, he says.

DOL’s human resources department is looking at bots and AI to sift through job candidates’ applications and speed up hiring. The federal unemployment benefits system that DOL manages has also expanded its use of AI and ML to pinpoint potential fraud.

The agency’s IT team already had AI and ML in place for cybersecurity, which is helping to block about 20 million sinister emails each month, Charlier says. Such tools can recognize malicious patterns in fractions of a second.

“It identifies those patterns and it does a baseline, so there’s a better ability to predict behaviors and notice threat vectors that might arise,” Charlier says. “They’re able to process a lot more data than a human could. We’re using those tools to make sure we stay vigilant and to identify areas that might be vulnerable before they get breached.”

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Labor Department Gains Agility via the Cloud

Through data center optimization and consolidation since 2014, DOL has reduced its legacy infrastructure footprint to 73 hubs across the various agencies under its umbrella, Charlier says. That effort, along with some other centralization, has led to about $120 million in cost savings and cost avoidance, he says. In 2021, another five data centers are scheduled to be folded into the agency’s converged system.

At the same time, the IT team is shifting more legacy operations to the cloud, including a presence on Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure platforms. The hyperconverged infrastructure the agency is using creates a single fabric for resource management no matter where the resources reside.

DOL can move operations and data where they are most effective technically and financially, allowing the agency to provide Infrastructure as a Service and on demand.

“It allows us to be more nimble,” Charlier says. “It allows us to reach more people.”

This year, DOL will launch a three-year project to replace a 12-year-old legacy system, providing grant services for eight of its agencies as well as other federal departments including the Environmental Protection Agency, the IRS and the Department of Homeland Security. The project highlights the benefit of shared services enabled by cloud-based hyperconvergence, Charlier says.

“IT consolidations help federal agencies improve services to citizens in terms of time, quality and experience, especially with digital-based solutions,” McClure notes. “End users will see many benefits, including less complexity in government interactions and transactions.”

One example of how modernization is benefiting users is the agency’s Foreign Labor Application Gateway, which handles the certification process for temporary workers, mostly seasonal labor on limited work visas. It had been a paper-dependent system —blue paper, to be exact, to print out certificates.

With a digitized system, applicants were still able to access certificates online during the pandemic. Additionally, DOL saved about $2 million annually in paper costs, according to Charlier.

“What this pandemic has done is really allow us to focus on what the values are that we can derive from this technology,” Charlier says.

“And cloud, I think across the federal government for those that are using it, has really been a lifesaver, because now this data is available where previously it wasn’t,” he adds. “It was locked away in servers or desktops that were sitting in the office where people couldn’t get to it.”

Going forward, the agency plans more digitization, particularly to serve a national workforce that’s increasingly mobile. “We try to look forward and think about some of the most important IT challenges that our citizens are going to face, and how we can be proactive in addressing those,” Charlier says. “It really helps to change the culture within the organization when it’s very mission-focused.”

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