If state governments want to adopt artificial intelligence technology but don’t want to commit too much right away, they can start by dipping their toes in the shallow end of the pool with robotic process automation.
The private sector has embraced RPA over the past few years, and there are indications that state governments are interested in adopting the technology as well. According to a 2018 survey by the National Association of State Chief Information Officers, Grant Thornton and CompTIA, AI and RPA represent some of the emerging technology that will be most impactful over the next three to five years, with 57 percent of respondents picking the category.
“Because RPA is a software solution and can be used across multiple legacy systems, the cost benefit is enormous. RPA is especially useful in government customer service functions,” a separate NASCIO report states. “Due to high accuracy, speed and standardization, RPA can save between 40-70% on labor costs, and near zero-error rates with both back office and front office functions.”
What Is RPA?
At its heart, robotic process automation is essentially “a way to use software to automate certain rules-based, repetitive tasks,” says Amy Hille Glasscock, a senior policy analyst at NASCIO.
“The private sector has been doing this for years, and now we are seeing state governments looking to RPA to save money and time, increase efficiency and accuracy, and free up employees to do the things we need humans to do,” she adds.
To Clark Partridge, the state comptroller for Arizona, RPA is basically a programmed script that is executed to perform tasks and is “kind of like a souped-up macro.”
“It executes the same way as a person would when they would be performing the same thing,” he says. “Because it is a script, it is obviously best suited for standardized high volume or routine activities.”
How Can RPA Tools Best Help State Government?
There are a wide range of use cases for RPA tools in state government. Just as is the case for businesses, any process that is business-rule-driven, occurs in high volume and is repeatable would be well-suited for state government, Glasscock says.
NASCIO sees RPA being used in many customer service applications, including chatbots to handle simple resident or user inquiries. That includes requests to reset passwords for accounts. “That’s an easy task that we really don’t need a human to do,” Glasscock says.
Robotic process automation is also useful for tasks carried out by human resources, financial services and procurement, according to Glasscock. “For state government, utilizing RPA for some of these more ‘back-office’ tasks saves time and money, increases accuracy and allows state employees to focus more on citizens,” she says.
Arizona’s comptroller’s office uses RPA to make routine updates in the accounting system, such as name changes, which are updated from the state’s human resources and payroll systems, according to Partridge. “If the change meets the required criteria, the update is made, a report on the results is prepared, and it is emailed to a [General Accounting Office] staff member for review,” he says.
“It performs these updates just like that individual would, and you have accountability for the RPA bot just like you would have for any employee,” Partridge adds. “This process is fairly simplistic, which is why it was chosen for our pilot, but it demonstrates the capability. This saves our staff about 30 to 60 minutes a day.”
The comptroller’s office is moving toward the second phase of its RPA pilot, according to Partridge, so the office is still learning. However, he says that he has found preparing financial reconciliations “to be a prime candidate to consider for RPA.”
“Just look for your routine, standardized, high-volume activities,” Partridge says.
How to Select the Best RPA Solutions
There are a wide range of robotic process automation vendors and tools available for state governments to choose from, ranging from small companies to quite large ones. Some, like Blue Prism and UiPath, were founded in the early 2000s, pioneering the field of RPA. Others, like WorkFusion, which was founded in 2010, are of a more recent vintage.
There are also major tech players like IBM that offer RPA solutions. IBM also partners with other RPA platform providers, like Automation Anywhere. Arizona’s comptroller’s office uses Automation Anywhere software for its RPA pilot, according to Partridge.
Partridge recommended that state IT leaders who are interested in RPA do their own research and work with trusted third parties. They should also try and have conversations with their peers who have used RPA. “A vendor can help connect you with someone,” he says. “People are very willing to share thoughts and ideas.”
Partridge first heard about RPA at a conference about a year and a half ago, during a discussion about emerging technologies like AI and blockchain. “Those are great technologies and pretty exciting, but too expensive at this point for us to tackle given our budget and overall resources,” he says. “When I saw how RPA worked and the short time to implement, considering the possibilities and the relatively low cost, it was like fireworks. I thought, ‘Hey, we can do this!’”
IBM recommends that IT leaders seek to match the RPA capabilities they need with their desired outcomes in order to achieve a strong return on investment. IBM says there are two main options. One is to “deploy standalone RPA as a simple way to achieve automation” and the other is to combine it with additional components to create a more sophisticated “RPA plus” capability. This second approach should be used “for processes which, due to complexity and dependencies, need to be coordinated,” according to IBM, as it “enables RPA to be used for more complex, conditional actions that may involve multiple outcomes and/or decision-making.”
“The key is to clearly understand when standalone RPA is enough, and when it is time to consider enhancing it by adding more advanced capabilities such as unstructured data capture, business rules management or workflow orchestration,” IBM says.
RPA is still relatively novel in government, Partridge says, and agencies are still experimenting. “My suggestion is to consider this as an investment in your future,” he says. “When you think of what's coming, artificial intelligence, etc., we need to be forward-thinking.”
RPA helps agencies get more comfortable with adopting new technologies and integrating them into their workforce to drive value and productivity, Partridge says. “It has a relatively low cost and implementation period. You can get started, learn and find out where your best opportunities are,” he says. “It’s an exciting time to improve our business processes and expand the value we deliver to citizens.”