IRS procurement shop sees RPA as key to handle growing year-end workload with shrinking workforce

Faced with a growing workload at the end of each fiscal year and a shrinking procurement workforce, the IRS is looking at RPA tools to help with the heavy lifti...

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Less repetitive work for the federal workforce sounds like an easy sell, but agencies still have a long road ahead of them when it comes to getting robotic process automation off the ground.

Agencies took a major step forward on Tuesday, however, when the governmentwide RPA Community of Practice held its first industry day to gather feedback from vendors and government partners.

Agencies who have already taken the plunge on RPA have seen positive results. The IRS, for example, expects to save more than 18,000 work hours through pilots launched in its procurement office, and faced with a growing workload at the end of each fiscal year, the IRS is looking at RPA tools to help with the heavy lifting.

Harrison Smith, the IRS’s deputy chief procurement officer, said that over the past five years, the amount of work his office has had to complete in the fourth quarter each fiscal year has increased by 10%. In the same period of amount of time, the workload in September has doubled.

Meanwhile, the IRS’s procurement has decreased by about 40 percent over those five years.

“Continually asking personnel to do more and more with less and less — it’s not something that’s feasible or tenable in the long-run,” Smith said Wednesday in a call with reporters.

To complicate the situation, about 30% of the IRS’s procurement workforce is currently retirement-eligible. IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig told senators in April about 45% of the IRS’s total workforce will be retirement-eligible within the next two years.

“With those numbers, 100 people could walk out today,” Smith said about the aging procurement workforce. “And so, helping folks do the work within a reasonable amount of time — helping those folks understand how they can shift out of maybe doing manual paperwork tasks into something that’s more relevant and more pertinent is simply going to enable and empower and make them more enthusiastic.”

The governmentwide community of practice, led by the General Services Administration, features a dozen different practice areas, on disciplines ranging from governance, ethics, privacy, security, credentialing and change management to contracting and technical details.

More than 30 industry officials and 14 government officials spoke during Tuesday’s workshop, with more than 300 attendees. There, the IRS showcased Pilot IRS, a program to develop emerging tech projects through incremental funding — and pull the plug on that money if those projects don’t yield results.

IRS procurement officials have met with officials from the Defense Department’s Joint Artificial Intelligence Center (JAIC) and compared notes with other agencies on how they approach RPA implementation. But Mitch Winans, special assistant in the agency’s procurement office, said agencies still stand far apart when its comes to RPA adoption.

“There’s some agencies that are just start-ups, if you will, they’re just getting started. They don’t have any RPA projects, let alone things with other advanced technologies like AI and natural language processing and machine learning,” Winan said, while other agencies like the Food and Drug Administration have rolled out “hundreds” of bots.

GSA, DoD and the Department of Health and Human Services stand out as the biggest adopters of RPA and automation, but Winan said IRS falls somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, and continues to compare notes with other members of the RPA community.

“I think getting some real, tangible playbook-type information — templates, documents, nuggets of information that can help people get started, or advance or evolve, depending where they’re at in their journey, I think will be really helpful, both to us internally at IRS and Treasury but also more broadly governmentwide,” he said.

While the IRS is happy to share their lessons learned, Smith cautioned that agencies will have to figure out some elements of their RPA rollout on their own.

“They’re not all going to look the same. You’ll have to make sure that if it’s an automation solution for another environment, you have the technology and systems integrators able to talk to the people who are actually performing the work,” he said.

For all the hype around RPA, and the enthusiasm around agency pilots, building a critical mass of automation projects remains a work in progress. Meanwhile, a recent study from the consulting firm Ernst & Young found that 30 to 50% of initial RPA projects fail.

But the Pilot IRS program allows the IRS to pull the plug on projects that don’t bear fruit, and continue to fund those that show promise. Smith said this iterative process also puts the IRS procurement shop in a position to redefine what it means when a tool “breaks” or fails.

“If an automation solution breaks, that doesn’t mean you have to throw it out, start over again or it’s going to be three-to-six months down the line. You go in, say ‘What happened? Ah, this website updated, let’s just change that line of code and move on.’ This is a very near-term fix, and so the concept of ‘break’ is not always a bad thing. It tells you where the problem is, you identify quickly and you can pivot and move ahead,” Smith said.

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