Busting 6 myths about automating agency processes with Centers of Excellence

Government agencies are increasingly turning to Centers of Excellence (CoE) to deploy intelligent automation in an effort to enhance core internal processes and...

Government agencies are increasingly turning to Centers of Excellence (CoE) to deploy intelligent automation in an effort to enhance core internal processes and drive operational and workforce efficiency gains. From the General Services Administration’s CoE to the Department of Homeland Security’s Science & Technology CoE, government agencies have leveraged the CoE model to automate techniques and processes that can serve as lessons learned for enterprise-wide initiatives going forward. These initiatives are not solely focused on automation, however. There are many concepts CoEs can help agencies with including proposal management, implementing data analytics, and employee recruitment and retention.

With increased interest and adoption, however, come misconceptions that can undermine the full benefits CoEs deliver. Stakeholders are still educating themselves on where and when Centers of Excellence are the best fit, what internal and external resources are available and what it takes to secure executive and workforce buy-in. Addressing six key misconceptions will help agency leaders better understand the value that CoEs can bring to their organizations.

1. “CoEs are solely designed for large-scale automation projects”

One common assumption is that CoEs are primarily established to support large-scale IT automation projects. While they can be used in this way, this misconception contradicts attributes that make CoEs appealing. Instead of being massive, unwieldy initiatives that consume excessive resources and time, CoEs are useful precisely because they are highly scalable and flexible in structure, designed to launch quickly and efficiently. By focusing on realistic improvements to core processes, CoEs can deliver tangible ROI for automation initiatives of all sizes.

2. “CoEs are a magic bullet to solve all agency problems”

CoEs are well-suited to boost efficiency through automation, but they are not a one-size-fits-all solution for every process inefficiency. Some manual processes may be a great match for automated solutions, while others may require so much human micromanagement that efficiency gains are limited. CoEs composed of accountants and finance leaders may be in a good position to implement automated software applications that perform repetitive tasks — also known as bots — that can speed up financial reporting with high accuracy, but an entirely different, people-focused approach is likely necessary for handling processes where individual human deliberation is key for high-stakes decision-making. Agencies working with larger data sets will likely need to train CoE attention on individual components of the larger system to inform the development of a more general framework for transforming their process overall. CoEs play a significant role in identifying, refining and deploying automated solutions, but they don’t provide an instant fix to all agency problems. Agency leaders should maintain realistic expectations and understand that CoEs work best when used as a strategic tool for targeted improvements.

3. “CoEs are always CIO-owned projects”

It is logical to assume any initiative focused on technology improvements falls under the purview of an organization’s chief information officer (CIO). This can be true in some cases, but that association is shifting as more agencies launch and structure their own CoEs. While CIOs focus increasingly on infrastructure and security, business process owners — the people in charge of discrete business units with a focused mission within an organization — are often better suited to manage CoEs. These individuals are more closely involved with processes that CoEs are designed to enhance and thus can offer pertinent insights. At the same time, putting CoE ownership at the enterprise level can eliminate silos as these process owners are already actively involved in processes that could be consolidated under a CoE. In addition to the business process owner, it’s also beneficial to have a champion role within the CoEs, someone who can consistently articulate the benefits and value these centers bring to the agency to others unfamiliar with how it works.

4. “Automation is coming to take people’s jobs”

Automation of any kind can spark fears among agency workforces that these implementations will replace human work, rather than enhance it. However, the guiding criteria for CoEs and the overall aim of automation should be to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of employees. When CoEs identify the specific routine and repetitive tasks that bots can handle in a fraction of the time without burning out, human employees will need to dedicate less time to rote processes and can focus on more complex, creative and rewarding aspects of their roles. From that organizational perspective, automation should be seen as an assistant, not a replacement.

5. “Automation begins and ends with a CoE”

CoEs can make a substantial impact through automation in a relatively short time, but the effect shouldn’t end there. In the journey to modernizing an agency, a CoE is a first step, not a final one. CoEs go beyond identifying opportunities to automate processes, building a framework for how analytics, AI and machine learning can complement existing operations and scale up capabilities. Even more localized and small-scale implementations such as handling a data entry task with robotic process automation can be a stepping stone, demonstrating near-term effectiveness and serving as a proof of concept for larger solutions.

6. “Agency and industry CoEs are an ‘either/or’ proposition.”

While government agencies that implement internal CoEs have the benefit of being able to rely on specialized knowledge and familiarity with internal processes, these are not replacements for external CoEs. For the best understanding of how automation can transform an agency, tapping into the breadth of experience that industry CoEs can provide is crucial. In addition to the ability to consult with industry-best experts who have deep experience with digital transformation, external CoEs are especially valuable because they provide an outside perspective that may help to identify ingrained habits or processes that hold an agency back. For example, the Marine Corps sought out an external CoE focused on robotics to help conceptualize and develop a new way to process contracts and make documents audit ready, relying on that outside expertise.

CoEs play a vital role in improving automation, tracking efficiency and serving as a gateway for deploying advanced technologies like analytics, AI and machine learning. But government leaders need a thorough and accurate understanding of the actual purpose and potential CoEs can bring to realize the true value they provide across agencies.

Mark Hogenmiller is chief transformation officer at Aeyon.

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