In the private sector, an automation explosion is underway.
One major retailer, for example, is using a new automated system to increase speed and accuracy in how freight is handled at its regional distribution centers. Another retail giant is relying on new automated processes to replenish store shelves more efficiently, reduce excess inventory and free employees from mundane sorting tasks.
They are among the retailers using automation to make the networks that interconnect all their locations easier to deploy and manage. But what about federal agencies, which are among the largest enterprises in the world?
The story there is more of a mixed bag.
At first glance, it may seem like apples and oranges to compare government agencies with some of the world’s largest retailers. But both are responsible for serving millions of people during a time of dramatic digital advancement, which requires significant reengineering of operations, systems and processes.
In the case of federal agencies, digital pressures have intensified as citizens have come to expect service experiences similar to those they encounter every day in the commercial sector, and as the volumes and types of data that agencies must deal with have surged.
The Benefits of Automation
Agencies can leverage intelligent automation for a range of benefits, from relieving employees of rote, low-value work so they can contribute in more meaningful ways to making digital services faster and more responsive through the automation of manual, backend processes.
Let’s say, for example, that a government website serving millions of citizens is prone to slowing down and even crashing. Automated software tools that analyze huge volumes of network data can proactively identify a potential issue and fix it before it becomes a problem.
Sounds great, right? But uptake of automation technologies in federal agencies remains a work in progress.
A recent survey found that 63% of federal agency executives thought they could benefit from intelligent automation and that 38% have already started implementing it. However, a large number–30%–remain on the fence and said they didn’t know if automation could help them.
Interestingly, automation’s top benefits as perceived by the survey respondents were: Moving employees away from redundant or low-value work, reducing errors and offering a better experience to citizens and other users. Reducing costs was lower on the list, which is a good sign because it shows that more in the government sector are recognizing automation’s strategic value rather than fearing it as a job killer.
Federal Adoption of RPA
As a reflection of how automation is changing the nature of work and making employees’ jobs more interesting and productive, the federal government has stepped up a push to adopt robotic process automation (RPA) over the last few years. RPA is a technology that uses software robots to automate highly repetitive tasks that people would otherwise perform manually. This frees up human employees for higher-value work.
These tasks can include extraction of data from websites and email text into a structured form for processing, data reconciliation and monitoring and responding to common IT and networking issues.
In 2018, the White House Office of Management and Budget directed federal agencies and heads of executive departments to identify more opportunities to streamline operations via RPA.
In 2020, the General Services Administration estimated that current automation programs “operating within agencies are achieving roughly five hours of workload elimination per employee. If the government deployed RPA at scale and achieved only 20 hours of workload elimination per employee, the net capacity gained would be worth $3 billion–and that is only scratching the surface.”
The GSA leads the federal RPA Community of Practice to help agencies overcome the technical, management, and operational challenges in designing and deploying RPA programs.
“At a government-wide level, RPA can represent a profound change, with the potential to empower non-IT professionals and process owners with the tools to automate a significant share of their workload,” the group’s report said. “RPA is considered transformative because it establishes the building blocks for artificial intelligence in terms of information technology infrastructure and task standardization. With effective RPA deployment, machine learning and intelligent automation are only a few, manageable steps away.”
According to the group, “many agencies across the federal government have initiated RPA programs to automate tasks of varying complexity. Automations developed to date have focused on multiple functional areas including finance, acquisition, IT, human resources, mission organizations and security/mission assurance.”
My own experience in working with federal customers is that many are at least dipping their toes into the automation waters, but not quickly enough and certainly not at the pace seen in some parts of the private sector.
Why the continued reluctance? I think much of it comes down to trust. Worries remain that automation will take jobs when, in fact, machines should be thought of as non-human team members who take care of the drudgery while the humans contribute their knowledge and creativity to more important work. Federal enterprises should embrace the opportunity to test automation to prove it works as they expect, similar to interviewing a new employee. This is how to gain the trust needed to deploy automation to augment humans’ work.
Automation also faces resistance from older employees who, on the verge of retirement, aren’t interested in learning new technology.
The fact is, though, the federal government is on the cusp of an automation boom. More and more, it will become critical to agencies’ success. The time for fear and mistrust is over.
Automation is here to stay, and agencies should embrace it.