Understanding the obstacles to automation

FCW gathered a group of government experts to discuss the challenges involved in adopting automation. Those hurdles include convoluted business processes, a wary workforce and an incomplete understanding of how best to use the technology. Participants agreed, however, that automation is essential to a customer-centric, digital government.

The discussion was on the record but not for individual attribution, and the quotes have been edited for length and clarity. Here’s what the group had to say.

Why RPA? And why now?

“In my previous agency, RPA primarily was focused on improving documentation audit and workflow compliance,” one participant said. “Let’s say you have a series of legal requirements that must be met and you have millions of documents. Certain documents require a subject-matter expert to look at the workflow, match it with federal government regulations and ensure that the particular scenario actually applies. How do you automate that? That’s where RPA meets artificial intelligence. RPA is just the start, but then it blossoms into a new innovative discovery.”

“We’ve been focused on ways to improve the stability and security of our systems — how we can eliminate some of the challenges with human error,” another executive said. “Once we’ve automated those things, we’ll be able to reinvest the resources that we’re currently using to maintain the systems and focus them outwardly on how to improve the solutions that are coming in.”

Participants acknowledged that automation has taken off in the past few years, though they had a number of explanations for why that has happened.

One said: “I think the engagement, collaboration and communication among the CXO community is key so that we look at things not just through a frame of reference of financials, acquisition or IT, but how do you cross-collaborate to get meaningful outcomes? This is the thinking behind the cross-agency priority goals and shared services. We’re looking at how we can do IT modernization from the whole-of-government approach rather than silos.”

Another participant agreed, saying:“Our leaders are now used to the word ‘automation,’ and they believe in it. This is a cross-agency priority with sustained leadership, and they are actually involved and invested in trying to improve business processes. Everyone — government and industry and all of us in our private lives — is moving more and more toward massive amounts of data. And it’s not going to slow down.”

“We didn’t go after RPA and machine learning because it was a buzzword,” another speaker said. “We had to do something because we’re constantly losing resources and funding. We’re expected to do more with less. And so we have to come up with a more creative way to do what we couldn’t do before and do it better. In some cases, RPA is the only way.”

“You also run into the interconnectedness of all these things,” an executive added. “When one node goes down and it causes your entire enterprise to go down, you don’t have time to wait for somebody to step in and figure out what’s going on. Those are the kinds of things that we’re focusing on.”

‘Figuring out what shouldn’t be automated’

There was a lively discussion about taking advantage of the opportunity to evaluate and improve processes before automating them.

“Several years ago when the executive order on reducing the size of the federal government came out, I realized there was no way we were going to be able to even come close to meeting that financial target,” one executive said. “So I convened my teams and said, ‘We don’t have the option of saying we can’t deliver the service so let’s come up with the attributes for an idealized system. What would it look like?’ And one of the things that we discovered is that focusing on individual administrative processes is a bad mistake because it is a single function. And it’s one of many things that everyone does.”

To solve the problem, the participant added, “we began by thinking of our employees as customers. There are 2 million of them around government, and I think they are really the forgotten bunch. We tried to look at it from their perspective.”

Others also said that finding the right balance between people, process and technology is a key element of any automation effort. One executive described an effort to automate a business process that was spreadsheet-based. “We started out thinking it was pretty straightforward. But then we looked at the data. It was coming from different systems and it was conflicting, it was in different formats, pieces were missing. We had to back down and say, ‘We’ll automate the things that work well, and the user is going to be integrated systematically to fix things that automation will never be able to solve because the data is so poor.’ That was the way we got acceptance.”

“Once we’ve identified an idea, we start small, do a proof of concept, demonstrate the value, and see the feasibility of the technology and the business processes,” another executive said. “If you just see technology, a lot of people will go after the shiny object in front of them. But a critical first step is looking at those processes and figuring out what shouldn’t be automated because not everything should be.”

“In my agency, we automated and digitized processes, but we never took the time to make sure those steps were no longer needed,” a third participant said. “We have tried to address it by having a dialogue about the process side of it and asking: ‘What are you trying to do with this? What do you get out of it? And is there another way you can do this?’”

The need to shift the conversation was a common theme. “Everybody says, ‘I want machine learning and AI,’” one noted. “But they don’t necessarily need that, and even if their problem is oriented to that solution, do they have the subject-matter expertise to take advantage of it? I spend 90% of my day governing the data because I want to give them authoritative, real data. Many people don’t understand that. They think just by putting AI on a bunch of data, it will clean itself up. But it won’t. We’ll just have bad AI projects.”

Addressing concerns about job security

The group was unanimous in the view that workforce transformation is a crucial part of modernization and that automation cannot happen without employee buy-in.

“We talk about the fact that we can bring automation in and take the labor that we save and retrain the workforce,” one executive said. “The reality is that many employees don’t want to be retrained. I’ve got an employee who’s been in the agency for close to 60 years. If we take her tool away from her, the one she’s used every single day, and say, ‘We’re going to just push this button,’ she doesn’t like that idea.”

The executive offered a solution: “In my experience, if you show people how their lives could be improved and something could be done through RPA — that it would save them time, money and energy — then they become believers. But if you just tell them, ‘You need to do this,’ or just use the buzz terms, it doesn’t mean anything.”

Other participants said they’re discovering that their workforce needs are changing dramatically. “We’re trying to do things cheaper and more economically that don’t have a tail in terms of life cycle and cost,” one executive said. “So when we start to build these things, we have to hire people who can advance the technology. We’re doing a lot of cool stuff at our agency, and that attracts people and also allows them to become more marketable, which is good from a growth standpoint.”

Another executive said: “Of course, as people depart because they’re more marketable, now you have to fill their skills with potentially more advanced skills that get more money in the private sector. I’m running into battles with HR because I’m trying to bring people in with skills that have only existed for five years, and they’re the experts because they’ve been doing it for the whole five years. But HR says, ‘Five years isn’t enough.’ They’re the only people who have these skills. How do you not pay them what everybody else is paying?”

“We talk about moving employees to high-value work, but how do you move that forward?” a third executive asked. “How do you address the fear and doubts and uncertainty and then start to actually change the processes and train the workforce to go to high-value work? When you’re going through a digital IT transformation, you have to spend some time and effort not just focusing on the technology we’re trying to implement, but also the people. You have to make sure you have leaders who will be able to carry that message forward.”

Another executive agreed, adding:“If we are going to change our culture, we’ll need strong leaders who buy into that change management and have the soft skill needs that are going to change the dynamics of how we operate in the future. And we’ll need ongoing transparency and collaboration between agencies and between mission areas to grapple with these challenges.”

This article originally appeared in FCW magazine.