To better serve constituents, modernizing technology is imperative

Americans who have put off applying for a passport may need to change their overseas vacation plans. According to the State Department, as it stands, those who submit new passport applications face an eight-to-11 week processing time for routine requests and five to seven weeks for expedited requests, putting individuals well into 2022.

While this is bad news for those trying to get away this fall or winter, travel is only one industry that’s feeling the impacts of backlogs and bottlenecks due to recurring inefficiencies. Some individuals are still waiting for tax returns due to clerical errors and corrections, whereas some Texans are facing Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) assistance delays as applications have increased from a year ago. The common denominator? Outdated, manual processes and legacy technology designed for significantly lower intake volumes of data. It has become clear that digital transformation can no longer be an afterthought or something sidelined. Modernizing technology to keep pace with mounting data and document processing needs is imperative to better serve and protect constituents.

Automating SNAP to feed those in need

Today’s government bodies are largely using outdated systems. Nearly 90% of federal employees said their agency’s digital initiatives are lagging. Eschewing digital transformation in favor of relying on paper-first processes continues to contribute directly to backlogs created within government systems; thousands of Social Security recipients, for example, faced unprocessed benefits simply because they were done on paper and were left behind when the pandemic forced physical government offices to close.

One government program that has felt the sting of backlogs is SNAP, which offers supplemental assistance with food shopping to low-income families, a program especially needed throughout the pandemic. On average, SNAP helps families and nearly 20 million children, or 1 in 4, in the United States get the food they need to stay healthy. But what good is it if applications are slow to be processed?

The challenges of manual processing have created costly delays for SNAP, like in Texas and other states, resulting in a backlog of families waiting far too long for the assistance they need, or being incorrectly rejected for benefits due to clerical errors.
Others seek alternative options to avoid the complex and time-intensive applications, leaving tangible, unissued aid on the table.

What many fail to realize is that it doesn’t have to be this way. Today’s government agencies can use automation tools, such as intelligent document processing (IDP), to mitigate backlogs and improve data accuracy. IDP uses artificial intelligence to enable the end-to-end automation of document-centric business processes, converting complex, unstructured documents into structured, machine-readable information in a faster and greater accuracy capacity than humans alone. As more agencies adopt automation, we can expect to see a reduction in backlogs to help families and constituents receive benefits in a timelier manner.

Streamlining the IRS for quicker, hassle-free refunds

Filing taxes is overwhelmingly manual for both the individual filing and the federal government processing, leaving many to wonder, “when am I getting my tax refund?”
Here’s what we know and what the data is telling us: The IRS has estimated that it received more than 120 million pages of correspondence from 2010 to 2015, requiring around 8 billion hours for processing the returns. What’s more is, across the government, approximately 500 million hours each year are spent performing low-value work that could be greatly reduced with the right technology. Lastly, according to a new update from the Taxpayer Advocate Service, the IRS made 9 million error corrections on tax returns during the first half of this year. That’s compared to only 628,997 during
the same period last year.

The agencies handling unemployment aid faced similar backlogs since the pandemic began, as antiquated systems created significant delays to benefits programs that were supposed to be rolled out in 2020. Errors from using old government systems also resulted in nearly $40 billion in aid being incorrectly sent, and millions of people across the U.S. unable to claim the benefits they were owed.

This is a great example of where automation — both across the government and within the accounting firms that receive thousands of forms during tax season — can make a difference, especially with proper human-in-the-loop guidance. Intelligent automation is critical for processing the invoices, documents and handwritten forms received to enable more timely, reliable outcomes during tax season. And, for accounting professionals specifically, the newfound time can offer the freedom to work on high-value tasks, like navigating tax codes and finding ways to get clients the best return possible, rather than data entry.

Setting up internal technology advancement programs

For government agencies to keep pace with today’s rapid digital transformation, they need to adopt technology faster and do so with a better understanding of the technology being implemented. This can be achieved through technology advancement programs, which aim to give agencies the background on the technology at hand and educate them on how it works and its value-add.

An example of this in action is the General Services Administration, which created a Center of Excellence where they train government and public sector employees to think more strategically about automation and where artificial intelligence and machine learning are going.

Further, it’s essential to have people in these agencies who can speak the language of the technology that’s being implemented. The Presidential Innovation Fellows Program, for example, recruits and places workers from Deloitte, Lockheed, IBM and other innovative, forward-leaning, technical organizations inside government agencies. The program brings people together from non-profits, the private sector, and academic backgrounds and pairs them with the government’s top innovators to get projects done in a matter of months.

Where the government goes from here

All signs point to the fact that intelligent automation will be the defining technology for our government today. Recently, a $58.4 million bill was proposed at the federal level to modernize legacy government technology, a promising sign for our future. On the state level, many have already begun to mobilize their digital transformation efforts; the governor of Connecticut recently signed a bill set to “modernize and update a variety of state government operations affecting procurement, digital government initiatives, and the Small and Minority Business (or set-aside) Program.”
The public sector owes it to those they serve to leave inefficient data handling processes in the past and prioritize digital transformation and intelligent automation efforts. By modernizing technology and implementing automation, our government can better handle the shifting landscapes of today, both internally for improving the employee experience, but especially for the constituents served.
Brendan MacCarthy is the AVP, Public Sector, at Hyperscience.

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