5 easy steps for federal agencies to implement automation

Tell me if you’ve heard this before — federal agencies want to embrace new technology.

When I speak with federal leaders, I consistently hear their desire to upgrade from legacy IT to new technologies, specifically cloud-based platforms. They realize that the much-discussed 80 percent of annual budgets spent on legacy IT is no longer acceptable or feasible.

A recent survey of federal decision-makers pinpointed the negative impact these legacy technologies have on daily work for employees. It goes beyond time spent on manual processes, such as updating spreadsheets or emailing requests, and into aspects of work that the private sector left behind years ago.

Did you know that one in three employees say they still spend their time hand-delivering paper files to coworkers in 2017? Frankly, I bet that number would be even higher if it wasn’t so embarrassing to admit!

It’s clear that a key aspect of any IT transformation is shifting these tedious processes from being done manually to being done automatically. And I can already hear an agency leader asking me, “How do we make the jump to automation?”

I’m glad they asked, because here’s my five-step roadmap to automation for any federal leader.

1) Modernize IT infrastructure. This is the most obvious step, because without a modern IT infrastructure, automation is not feasible. Estimates on the number of agencies on cloud vary, but it falls far short of the private sector. President Donald Trump has signed the Modernizing Government Technology (MGT) Act into law, which will provide much-needed funding to modernize legacy IT and develop a solid foundation from which to deliver services. The NASA Shared Services Center (NSSC) has shown how this can work in practice, as it recently consolidated all of its systems onto a cloud-based service management platform. Previously, the NSSC had multiple solutions bolted together, which often required time-consuming manual processes. By consolidating, NSSC was able to define, structure and automate more than 50 services across IT, human resources, finance and procurement.

2) Start small. The survey found nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of respondents said their agency is currently using or considering an intelligent automation solution, but 24 percent are not sure of the timeframe. This is an issue when trying to initially implement an enterprise-wide solution. For agencies to be successful, they need to start small with pilot projects, so any missteps are quickly addressed and success can be built upon. For example, the onboarding process for new federal employees is currently a very manual, and lengthy, process. The HR department could quickly benefit from an intelligent automation solution to shorten the onboarding process and provide a smoother experience for employees on their first day. Once HR is able to showcase positive results, other departments within an agency will be more likely to follow suit.

3) Transform service delivery. When the survey asked which processes are automated today, resolving customer issues came in dead last. That’s not a good sign for improving the citizen experience when they interact with the government. Why can’t citizen-facing processes, such as issuing approvals, or updating status of requests, be automated? Think about the State Department and how citizens have to request and receive new passports. It’s currently a process that can take months to complete, to the point citizens can become frustrated. If that process was updated through intelligent automation, the citizen-facing process becomes much smoother and improves the citizen’s opinion of the government.

4) Target workflows. It was remarkable to me that 77 percent of respondents said they spend more than a quarter of their day on manual tasks. Think about all the hours in a given week spent on tasks such as emailing approvals. By capturing those manual processes, and then replicating and then automating them as workflows, federal employees can spend their day on more value-added tasks to benefit the entire agency. Referring back to the shift to cloud at NASA, the agency was able to completely overhaul its grant process. Every step in the process from reviews, research and approvals are conducted and tracked against each request in workflows. In a given year, NASA processes nearly 2,000 grants, more than 4,000 requests for supplemental funding and tracks roughly 5,700 open grants. By automating these workflows, the grant process becomes much faster while still supporting NASA’s ongoing governance, risk and compliance efforts.

5) Get quick wins. Who doesn’t like to win? There is a multitude of processes that could be automated across various departments, whether that’s accounting or human resources. When processes are automated, agency leaders and employees alike are able to quickly realize the value of fewer errors, reduced cost or increased efficiencies. Choose a few simple processes, get automation wins in those areas and build on your success!

The cusp of massive IT transformation

I truly believe — maybe for the first time — the federal government is on the cusp of a massive IT transformation that will radically change how it does business moving forward, both internally and externally to citizen customers.

So, how about it? If federal agencies follow this roadmap, their success can demonstrate the value of automation. Ultimately, the goal is for every agency to enable this technology as a cornerstone of their modernization efforts, which will improve mission effectiveness and reduce the cost to deliver it.


Bob Osborn is the federal CTO of ServiceNow

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