For a few years now, state and local governments have been pursuing robotic process automation (RPA) as a way to automate processes that are business-rule-driven, occur in high volume and are repeatable. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, automation has become a growing need with our customers, to help increase and boost productivity in a new remote work environment or with fewer coworkers. This trend of automation in government is accelerating.
A recent survey of public sector IT leaders found that at the state and local level, the percentage of respondents who had automation as one of their top three priorities jumped to 35 percent after the pandemic struck, up from 23 percent.
The economic toll of the pandemic is one of the key factors in pushing IT leaders to embrace automation. State and local governments are facing looming budget cuts as they see rising unemployment and healthcare costs amid plunging sales, property and income taxes. The National Governors Association has estimated that states need at least $500 billion in federal funding to cover budget gaps.
Automation helps states save money and allow workers to focus on higher-value work. However, there are smart ways to go about automating tasks and processes that government agencies should follow to actually realize the benefits of such a shift.
Praise for Automation in Government
Automation in government is becoming more popular as IT leaders look for ways to gain efficiencies. “I think we’re all going to look for ways to streamline because things like RPA are going to be necessary,” Hawaii CIO Douglas Murdock tells StateScoop. “A lot of states keep archaic processes in place because there are people there to do them, I think. It’s civil-service mind block, maybe. But if we lose people, then we’re going to have to bring in RPA to take care of things and to get better.”
Hawaii has already started down this road by eliminating old paper-based and manual processes. The upgrade was set in motion well before the pandemic but has proven fruitful, since paper-based processes are even less useful than before with so many state employees working remotely.
Other states have turned to RPA to streamline legacy and manual processes. For example, in New Jersey, the state court system used RPA to help automate responses for its legacy complaint management system, known as ACS.
“This empowered the public to pay online for various complaints in NJMCDirect, while robots were built to retrieve payment records and update corresponding complaints in ACS behind the scenes,” Kathleen Walch, managing partner and principal analyst at AI-focused research and advisory firm Cognilytica, writes in Forbes.
Jack McCarthy, CIO for the state of New Jersey’s judiciary, says that a simple RPA program “performed a work routine in about three minutes, relieving staff of eight to 10 hours of work time normally consumed by repetitive tasks,” StateScoop reports.
Krishna Edathil, director of enterprise solution services, cloud and AI for Texas, tells StateScoop that RPA and natural language processing helped the state set up automated email responses after it was flooded with email requests at the onset of the pandemic.
How to Avoid the Pitfalls of Automation
It’s clear that automation can save time and money. However, IT leaders need to clearly align, collaborate and educate line-of-business leadership and teams at government agencies on identifying the correct use cases for automation. Every job cannot be and should not be automated away. Understanding the distinction and having a framework for this approach is key for business leaders that can be consistently and systematically working to identify automation opportunities.
That collaborative approach is what Edathil undertook in Texas. “They could see that process happening in front of them and then that fear slowly got away,” he tells StateScoop.
Staff members saw tasks that previously took eight hours to complete were finished in 14 to 15 seconds and the process saved $250,000 a year, StateScoop reports. That lessened employees’ fears about being replaced but still showed them the value of RPA.
IT leaders also need to validate RPA tools’ accuracy before implementing them. An algorithm used to automatically adjust students’ important test scores in the United Kingdom went awry, showing the downside of relying too much on software to make judgments.
Automation needs become a holistic approach to IT and innovation, it cannot be a one-time project. Automation is going to become more of a fixture of how governments deliver services to the public, and it has clear benefits. However, it must be applied judiciously and with a long-term plan in place. More tools are not usually the answer, it is about what, why and when more than the how.
“We end up creating a lot of disconnected independent systems and a range of things that really set up [states’ IT environments] for instability,” Jeremy Goldberg, New York state’s interim CIO, tells StateScoop. “How do we approach these issues, these technologies, in a more systematized way? It’s not just about the tools. We have a lot of tools and there are more things potentially we could procure, but it’s really about what are the rules that are in place around these things and how do we maximize them for the best value, whether that’s RPA or other?”