IRS’ quick wins by procurement, finance demonstrate power, value of RPA

The procurement and finance organizations have helped push the IRS toward a more innovative approach that focuses on automation to move away from repetitive, mu...

For the last few years, the IRS has been changing its external reputation and internal culture of an agency that doesn’t take technology risks.

The Pilot IRS program may be one of the most well-known examples of this external evolution, reaching out to vendors to bring in innovation and new approaches to contracting.

Internally, the use of robotics process automation in the procurement and financial offices has been a strong influence on the workforce’s culture.

Shanna Webbers, the assistant deputy commissioner for operations support at the IRS, said a combination of short-term wins and agencywide collaboration helped drive two major changes.

Shanna Webbers is the assistant deputy commissioner for operations support at the IRS.

“The technology enables our staff do other things or things that they may find more interesting, instead of just mundane, repetitive tasks. That’s really what we want to do. We want to create an environment where our staff want to come to work, where they’re excited to come to work, where they feel like they are making a tremendous amount of value to executing our mission at the IRS,” Webbers said on Ask the CIO. “How do we create that and beyond just upskilling and rescaling in areas with human resources-related to technology or robotic process automation? We really are looking at the whole person. How do we ensure that every individual in the organization has the right skill set, the right experience and the right knowledge to take on positions of greater responsibility?”

Webbers said that meant changing how they trained the workforce. Instead of focusing 80% of the training on the technical aspects of procurement, the use of RPA and automation has let the IRS refocus the training to 50% on technical and 50% on other skills like critical thinking, writing, leadership and collaboration.

Agency collaboration

The second initiative to drive the culture change is to create a partnership with the agency’s chief information officer’s office.

Webbers said the CIO’s office must give its final “blessing” before the bot can launch, the office has provided acquisition and financial with liaisons to help work through the documentation and security processes.

“We have a process in place where when we have ideas, we, through an intake form, submit them to the CIO and they get reviewed. There’s an IT advisory board that makes recommendations for how to move forward,” she said. “If we don’t have the capacity or the funding to move forward, the CIO’s office helps to prioritize the RPA investments.”

Across procurement and financial, the IRS has implemented a small amount of RPA bots so far, but expect to increase the number over the next year.

“We have other ones that are in the queue right now. In the next six to 12 months we are  focusing on RPA implementation that’s working around data reconciliation and management for our manual adjustments for refunds and deposits, that could save up to 35,000 hours per year,” said Teresa Hunter, the IRS’s CFO. “There’s a significant opportunity. We are a very paper-based organization. It’s just a matter of our IT organization having the capacity and the funding to keep up with the demand that is going to be coming their way. The CIO has a big job of making sure that we are secure and safe. It’s a balance between having a good relationship with your CIO office and understanding their perspective as well as the needs of the businesses.”

Hunter, like many CFOs, are seeing the value of bots for financial operations.

Teresa Hunter is the CFO at the IRS.

She said she is encouraging the staff to take a new way of looking at how they could do their work, which areas are repetitive and require mundane tasks that somebody had to do that.

“We know it does save time and effort on our staffs’ part,” Hunter said. “As we’re working on the automation, the innovation, the efficiency effort within CFO, we’re also looking at skill sets of our staff and how can we upskill or reskill them? What are the core areas that we want to focus on of making sure our staff are being trained to develop and grow in their role as we move forward with some of these shifts and changes? We aren’t looking to reduce full-time equivalents (FTE), but we’re looking at being able to be more analytical in our decision making and how we are approaching the work that we have to do so that we can be more successful and how we’re making decisions, how we’re coming to conclusions, and really getting ahead of any type of like audit issues or anything like that, where we’re really understanding our data and our workforce is really growing and developing along that path that would get us to the future of finance and the skill sets that are going to be required for people in a CFO organization.”

Relying on the innovation team

For both Hunter and Webbers, the continued move toward automation and using bots will be a balance of enthusiasm from the early adopters and managing those who remain cautious about it.

“One of the things that I believe helped us in that was just being open to hearing what they have to say about using bots. Every viewpoint was critically important to understanding the risk that may be associated with using a robotic process automation on a process that we had not proven out. So trying to take all of that input, letting them know that their input was important and mitigating the particular risks or accepting those risks, or coming up with a different approach to eliminate the risk, was our approach,” Webbers said. “At the end of the day, because I was in charge, I said, ‘Okay, let’s do it, we’re going to try and see.’ Fortunately, it worked out really well, and I think that those instances where we got those quick wins was important for people to gain confidence.”

She said the IRS looks back at every RPA implementation to create lessons learned and figure out where they can improve upon the process for next time.

Hunter added the CFO’s office created an innovation team to which employees can submit ideas for how to automate or improve a process.

“What I wanted to do was make folks a part of the process, where, I’ll steal a quote from procurement, can you tell me what you hate so that I can make you love it?” she said. “What are those opportunities that you just dislike doing every day? Let’s take a look at it because maybe there’s opportunity to do the work in a different way or automated it or whatever the solution may be, but there’s got to be an answer. We’ve focused on that as well as the change management portion of it as we’re thinking about how we’re looking at our work products. It’s really the mindset of how can a bot help me in my day-to-day life?”

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