DoD comptroller, Defense Logistics Agency setting unattended bots in motion

The Defense Logistics Agency is taking a major step forward in the adoption of robotic process automation (RPA), with nearly 100 unattended automations already running at the agency.

Erica Thomas, the RPA program manager for the Defense Department’s comptroller office, said Wednesday that her office is also in the process of standing up unattended automation as part of its existing RPA shared services platform.

About three years into its RPA journey, DoD’s comptroller office has stood up a Center of Excellence (CoE) that provides a cloud-based RPA infrastructure platform that’s open to anyone in DoD.

Thomas said the comptroller’s office also has a small team of developers that identify new ideas for future automations. The CoE also identifies automation priorities for fourth-estate defense agencies.

“What we’re trying to do is, where there might be hurdles or climbs that other groups may struggle as they’re trying to stand up their own RPA programs, how can we eliminate some of those barriers of entry, some of those pain points?” Thomas said at an ATARC conference.

The jump to unattended bots is a big step forward for many agencies. NASA’s Shared Services Center and the Patent and Trademark Office have unveiled plans to field unattended bots. The General Services Administration, meanwhile, is trying to help agencies overcome agencies’ concerns about letting bots run independently of an employee’s supervision.

Thomas said the CoE within the DoD comptroller’s office has taken a “hybrid” approach to help scale up the deployment of automation, with varying levels of oversight.

“Some of them want more involvement from us than others. Some groups, they simply want the technology stacks and the basic rules that they need to live by,” Thomas said.

The Army, for example, uses the comptroller CoE’s RPA platform and infrastructure, but has a completely independent RPA program and its own personnel.

Other groups within DoD are just getting started with automation, and require a more hands-on approach to getting up to speed.

“They don’t have any of the frameworks, they don’t have questionnaires or intake processes or anything else, and we’re happy to support any way that we can, even to the point that we’re doing the development work,” Thomas said.

NSF began automation journey with unattended bots

While the move to unattended bots has been a major lift for some agencies, the National Science Foundation actually started with unattended bots in its automation journey.

Anju Anand, the IT program manager for RPA at NSF, said the agency’s financial division started with unattended automation.

“Over time we learned that most agencies started with attended automation, so we took the harder path at NSF and started with unattended,” Anand said.

NSF has several CoEs across the agency. Its IT department hosts its main CoE, but Anand said multiple NSF divisions and directorates have their own “satellite CoEs” for RPA.

“We work in collaboration with each other to set up the next steps for our templates, standards, guidelines and next steps for RPA,” she said.

USCIS offers ‘robotics as a service’

Meikle Paschal, program manager for RPA at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), said his agency hasn’t yet deployed unattended bots.

The agency, he added, has had success with rolling out attended bots, and that route has helped build a baseline level of trust in automation among the workforce.

Attended bots at USCIS focused initially on back-office functions like human capital and training operations, but Paschal said he’s looking to deploy bots into the agency’s procurement operations.

“I think they’re going to see that, as we can move toward unattended bots, you’re going to see a lot more data being able to be handled in the background without people having to worry about it,” Paschal said.

USCIS has also stood up a CoE and is offering “robotics as a service,” a shared service model that lends out a small team of developers that will help stand up these capabilities elsewhere in the agency.

“There are going to be people out there who don’t necessarily have the skill sets or manpower, but they need this capability,” Paschal said.

Paschal’s team also stood up a training program to help more agency employees become developers, in order to keep up with the demand for automation.

“I strongly believe that this is going to be another skillset that people have … we’re going to start to see RPA be a lot more commonplace in the government,” he said.

Through this CoE, Paschal said USCIS is able to avoid duplicative efforts in deploying automation, but also gives his program office central visibility into the utility and benefit of these bots.

”What we want to do is be able to track the value so that our customers know exactly how time savings and cost savings are given, so as a whole our Center of Excellence can make sure we’re bringing value to the agency,” he said.

It can be challenging to quantify the benefit of bot deployments, however. Thomas said one lesson learned from the private sector’s fielding of bots is that the value comes from cutting mundane work of employees’ workdays, and less from overall cost savings.

“Yes, they still have labor savings, but they’re not as significant as you would think. In the government, I think it’s important for us to recognize the major benefits aren’t necessarily the cost savings. Those are a little bit down the list,” Thomas said.

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