We hear this year after year: Federal agencies must find ways to improve the delivery of services and reduce operating costs. It’s been a common theme over the past two decades.
The drive toward these goals took center stage in the early 2000s with governmentwide initiatives designed to flush out unnecessary overlap and duplication among agencies.
Results were mixed. Successes came primarily from administrative versus mission delivery processes, i.e., finance, human resources, acquisition, and payroll, mainly due to process standardization similarities among agencies.
The guidance in Office of Management and Budget memorandum M-18-23 could change this with renewed focus on shifting from low-value to high-value work. Significant additional benefits are possible if we look beyond eliminating the low-value, unnecessary, and outdated policies and requirements referenced in the guidance and use process improvement and robotic process automation (RPA) tools to improve mission delivery processes.
One of the biggest obstacles to reforming services has been the struggle to change legacy mission delivery processes, which is fundamentally hampered by the time and expense of modifying legacy software applications and data stores. Limited IT funding inhibits these efforts. Yet, significant improvements could be achieved if federal staff were freed from executing the routine tasks that are imbedded in these processes.
There is another sizable budget area to consider. Federal staffing costs in 2017 were $160 billion for civilian non-defense employees. Being able to reallocate as little as 2 percent of these employee’s time — $3.2 billion worth — to value-added services could have a dramatic impact on improving service delivery.
FedSmith reports that the average FY 2017 federal employee salary was approximately $81,361. $3.2 billion is the equivalent of 39,330 staff years or 80 million hours of staff time to apply toward the increased customer service and efficiency goals.
Intelligent automation is here
Intelligent Automation (IA) enables solving these decades-old problems now, starting with RPA, the IA gateway solution. RPA is being rapidly adopted by the private sector to improve the delivery of services and reduce operating costs. Federal agencies are taking notice because results are rapidly accumulating.
For example, 75 percent reductions in processing time are common following a successful RPA implementation. Virtually every successful implementation frees up staff to support tasks in other areas. It is estimated that greater than 50 percent of government-to-citizen processes are paper-driven which suggests that many staff hours to handle and process the information could be reclaimed.
What makes RPA implementations successful is a marriage between process streamlining and the RPA technology. Changing processes is no longer dependent upon modifying legacy systems because the RPA tools interface with existing back-office applications.
This frees organizations to rapidly design and implement process improvements at a very low-cost/risk point, removing many of the former barriers to transforming the mission delivery process layer of the delivery mechanism. Streamlining and documenting process tasks and business rules is also a prerequisite for implementing more complex IA solutions in the future.
The right way to begin
The critical first step is to identify the best candidates to streamline and automate. It isn’t necessary to analyze every mission function across the enterprise. This is a common mistake. Instead, pick a single service delivery function that is problematic. Consider the following criteria:
Volume (number of requests for a service or benefit). Higher volumes generate higher benefits.
Tasks that require a similar set of steps (data capture, data entry, analysis, decision, service or benefit provisioning).
Processing cadence (human and elapsed hours required to complete the tasks).
Select one or a small number of tasks within a larger process to streamline and subsequently automate as a proof-of-concept pilot project. Attempting to take on an end-to-end process is unnecessarily risky and defeats the ability to obtain quick wins which lead to ongoing support. A small RPA implementation will take only weeks to complete.
Simultaneously start the process of selecting the right tool and then the ATO process. It is best to focus on your long-term needs and technical environment to avoid unnecessarily repeating these steps.
It is essential to take time to streamline the selected tasks before automating them. Employ an Agile-based BPM methodology that will rapidly reveal opportunities for streamlining. Contemporary methods present process and task information that is easily understood and that quantifies alternatives. Automating a broken process is never the wisest choice. Organizations that fail to repair processes first receive limited value, if any, from their investment.
The next step is to automate the streamlined tasks as a proof-of-concept. Leading RPA tool suppliers will allow organizations to automate selected tasks in a test environment to illustrate outcomes and support a business case for investing in the project. The proof-of-concept reveals value provided by RPA bots in many areas beyond freeing staff from performing redundant tasks. These become powerful elements of your ROI analyses. They include:
Keys to Success
Establish a small and short-duration dedicated project team (must include mission, IT, and cyber security staff)
Leverage a mature BPM methodology and expertise
Select the right RPA software tool and acquire expertise in tool configuration
Create a Center of Excellence (COE) to provide policy, technical guidance, oversight of expanded RPA implementations, and change management
Successful implementations are growing in the commercial and public sectors when they are planned and implemented properly. Deployments are measured in weeks and benefits accrue quickly. The return on investment (ROI) is often achieved in months. These results will rapidly generate expansion in your organization.
The benefits from the initial small implementation are often enough to support another project. Rapidly growing demand that may result in chaos if not properly managed from an investment, architectural, and governance perspective.
Establishing a center of excellence early on will help ensure orderly adoption across mission delivery organizations and speed proliferation of the value. This is considerably easier and more effective than having to deal with independent, unstructured implementations of multiple tools and unmet expectations. A change management plan is needed too.
Employees may feel threatened that they are being replaced by robots. This is rarely the case because organizations reallocate many of their resources to strategic and customer-facing roles. A change management plan will establish processes for end-user and IT involvement, updating policies and procedures, education, and ongoing support.
Streamlining mission delivery processes is the next logical step in transforming government services. Agile approaches and new technologies now enable improvements that have been elusive for over 20 years in this layer of the mechanism.
Changes to legacy applications and data are not required to obtain rapid value and are no longer barriers to implementing streamlining initiatives. Smart planning and management of these efforts will ensure maximum value in the shortest time period.
Chris Niedermayer is the senior knowledge officer at BRMi. He is a former senior executive at USDA, USPTO, and HUD with 33 years of federal experience, most of them managing change in the federal environment.