Bot brigade marching through Interior to accelerate digital transformation

Andrea Brandon, the deputy assistant secretary for budget, finance, grants and acquisition for the Interior Department, said the agency has implemented robotics...

At the Interior Department, back office systems running grants, real property, finance and acquisition aren’t just getting a burst of new technology. The entire office overseeing the IT is getting a new name.

The Business Integration Office will soon change to the Business Integration and Innovation Office (BI2).

Andrea Brandon, the deputy assistant secretary for budget, finance, grants and acquisition for the Interior Department, said both the name change and the new technology will accelerate Interior’s digital transformation.

“I started with the Department of Interior back in March of 2019. When I first joined them, I was coming over from [the Department of Health and Human Services], where I was the deputy assistant secretary over there. I had been really working diligently with artificial intelligence and blockchain, or distributed ledger technology. So when I got over to Interior, I was still thinking, ‘Oh, let’s move in the direction of artificial intelligence first, and then we’ll start looking at the other innovative technologies.’ But they had already begun looking at robotics process automation. They had some great ideas, some business cases and asked to please take a look at that, rather than us moving first into artificial intelligence,” Brandon said in an interview with Federal News Network at the recent Emerging Technology and Innovation Conference sponsored ACT-IAC. “I’m all about innovation. RPA works so let’s move in the direction of RPA. So that’s what we’re doing.”

Interior already has implemented six bots and two more are in development to take on low-value or repetitive work. Brandon said there are dozens more opportunities around back-office and administrative systems.

One of those bots is named “Bob the Closer.” Interior uses Bob to close out contracts more quickly.

“Through Bob the Closer, for instance, we’ve already closed 7,441 contracts. Before we were having an issue because the contract closeout process had to be done by the same group of individuals that had to award the contracts, and all of the awards have to be made before Sept. 30. Our priority is getting the money out the door; unfortunately, closing it back out and maybe deobligating the money and getting the undelivered order off of the books took a backseat to getting the money out the door,” she said. “Now we have the bot that’s closing it out. We know exactly how many contracts have been closed out. It takes 104 seconds per contract to close it out.”

The use of bots to speed up contracting functions is an easy win. The Army, for example, has their bot named Dora to do responsibility determinations. The Homeland Security Department recently borrowed Dora for a test run and found success. The IRS also has been using bots for contract clause reviews and contractor responsibility determinations since 2020.

Another bot Interior is finding success is called the OSDBot — Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization bot — which collects small business data from all bureaus and acquisition offices.

Brandon said it helps leadership better understand how Interior is meeting its small business goals.

“We keep up every day with the statuses of our small business contracts, the different areas, whether it’s women-owned business or veteran-owned business,” she said. “That bot pulls that information automatically for us and it also does the dashboards and so forth. It keeps us up to speed on a daily basis. It’s working out really well and no more manual processes.”

Brandon said the success of “Bob the Closer” and OSDBot are opening the door to other opportunities. She said employees in financial management, grants and other functions are asking when they can have a bot.

“We actually have two that are in development currently. But we have a very long list and so what we ended up having to do is we have to put together a DOI Council on RPA because we have them not only for the businesses that are under my purview, but we have them across other parts of our human resources, for instance, that’s not under my purview, but the HR people want RPA as well,” she said. “The Interior Business Center also has bots, so we need to prioritize first how much funding can go to where so which bots are going to be prioritized in the department and then the other thing is shared learned experiences across the department and maybe even shared vehicle. Why make 100 different contracts across the entire Interior when we can shorten that and use the same contract vehicle or several contract vehicles?”

The council gives the program offices a place to discuss implementation challenges and solutions as well as being part of developing a RPA roadmap.

“We’ve been tracking all of these different metrics. We’re looking at cost savings from some bots. But we know that in some of them, we won’t see a cost savings for a couple of years because it takes time and we had to pay money to get the buy in to build the bot,” Brandon said. “I can honestly say people are excited about this, and they don’t feel like they are being replaced by the bot. They’re very excited and coming up with more use cases and our bot brigade is growing by leaps and bounds.”

Brandon said while the immediate benefit of RPA is reducing the workload on the employees, the longer term benefit is better data to drive decisions.

Brandon said OSDBot already is helping Interior address its shrinking small business industrial base.

“We’re starting an initiative to try to bring back the small businesses back into DOI,” she said. “There’s that whole call of what can be done by a bot versus where we still need human intervention. I like to call that the inherently human versus non-inherently human, and the decisions that we need to make. The bot brigade is building up and they will be marching on through DOI — we’re loving it.”

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