RPA more than a passing fad, just look at the data

The General Services Administration launched a robotics process automation community of practice to collect and share best practices across government.

If you want to measure the impact of specific technologies on federal agencies, one good way is with acquisition data.

And the General Services Administration’s Alliant 2 governmentwide acquisition contract (GWAC) is as good as any barometer given the fact the agency developed the procurement vehicle to make sure agencies have access to the latest, greatest technology available.

Bill Zielinski, the acting assistant commissioner for the Office of Information Technology Category (ITC) in GSA’s Federal Acquisition Service, wrote in a March 29 blog post that agencies issued 978 “unique, leading-edge technology projects valued at or above $1[million] per project” through Alliant 2 in fiscal 2018. Of the 978 projects, cybersecurity (128 projects), big data (119 projects) and virtual networking (114 projects) were most popular.

While the popularity of these topics are far from surprising, what stood out from GSA’s data is how many agencies sought autonomic computing — otherwise known as robotics process automation (RPA) — and the often related artificial intelligence contracts.

Zielinski said Alliant 2 saw 72 task orders for autonomic computing and 61 for AI. He didn’t say how much agencies spent through these task orders or whether they were for one month or one year.

But the fact that RPA and AI made the top 10 goes to show both the popularity and wide-spread acceptance of these technologies.

Gartner estimated in November that global spending on robotic process automation software is estimated to reach $680 million in 2018, an increase of 57% year over year. The research firm says RPA software spending is on pace to total $2.4 billion in 2022.

Deloitte’s Center for Government Insights said in 2017 that RPA could save agencies as much as $41.1 billion over the next seven years.

Numbers, however, don’t tell the entire story. Another way to measure the impact of technology on agencies is through the anecdotes executives tell in how they are using these technologies to improve and reduce the cost of back-office functions.

GSA, NASA and more piloting RPA

And you can’t shake a plate on the rubber chicken circuit without RPA coming up during a panel discussion.

From GSA’s own chief financial officer’s office using RPA to reduce more than 13,000 hours of unnecessary or duplicative work to NASA’s well-known use of robotics to reduce the manual processing of paperwork around grants, nearly every agency is jumping on the RPA bandwagon. And over the past two decades, it’s hard to remember a technology that caught on so quickly and has had such an impact as robotics.

“For RPA, it’s how can we save money and make the processes better,” said Marisa Schmader, the assistant commissioner for fiscal accounting in the Office of Financial Innovation and Transformation in the Bureau of Fiscal Service in the Treasury Department, at the recent Association of Government Accountants financial systems summit. “We’ve implemented things that you may not see or experience. Things that are repetitive like resetting passwords or sending reminders about passwords. It’s the things that have a lot of rigor around them that we are transitioning to a bot. Customers will have no way to tell, but it’s saving us money.”

Think about what Schmader said for a second — save money and make the processes better. Those simple concepts have been the promise of technology since Wang and Texas Instruments first put computers on federal employees’ desks

Over the years there has been a lot of promises, but few technologies have delivered real results so quickly like RPA.

GSA’s CFO Gerrard Badorrek said through the use of bots, he believes the agency can eliminate well over 50,000 annualized hours of unnecessary work.

Schmader said the fiscal service is applying bots to financial statement reporting tool that removed the need to process 300-plus reports in Excel.

Others have taken fast notice of the early adopters at GSA and Treasury.

HUD could save 60,000 hours

Bill Apgar, the branch chief of the Interior Business Center’s financial management directorate at the Department of the Interior, said his office started a RPA pilot in early March with Deloitte.

“We identified process areas where we can use bots, including client invoicing and trial balance and reporting. These are high reporting and low complexity work,” he said at the AGA summit. “We are looking to expand in other accounting opportunities.”

Over at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Irv Dennis, the agency’s CFO, said he has identified 50,000-to-60,000 hours that can be converted to robotics.

“We have a lot of manual processes and they are ideal candidates for RPA. It’s not expensive, they are easy to use and easy to implement,” Dennis said at the AGA summit. “We had processes at HUD, like grant accruals, which require 2,200 man hours to do that over six months. We put a RPA around it and brought that 2,200 hours down to 65 hours in just three weeks.”

Dennis emphasized that the move to RPA is not about getting rid of jobs or employees, but moving people to high quality jobs, such as data analytics.

“Once you understand capability of RPA, it can be helpful on the compliance side too,” he said.

And this is the other reason why RPA is gaining so much attention. Initial fears over “robotics taking our jobs” went away quickly once agencies started to fully understand how bots work.

That understanding, for many agencies, remains in the nascent stage. To that end, GSA launched on April 18 a RPA community of practice.

“With the advancements in emerging technology, it’s important for the federal government to capitalize on technological solutions in order to obtain the benefits of cost-effectively automating manual, repetitive and rule-based operations. Many agencies are currently piloting RPA or already have bots in production, but so much more can be learned, accomplished, and shared with the collective efforts of industry and government,” Ed Burrows, GSA’s RPA program manager in the CFO’s office, wrote in a blog post. “By creating a RPA CoP, the federal government can reduce duplication and streamline efforts to implement RPA across government to help advance agency missions today, and into the future. The GSA Office of the CFO will leverage the existing Technology Transformation Service CoP management capabilities and expertise to lead the RPA CoP. The CoP will mobilize federal RPA leaders to share information, define technical options and outline best practices for implementation in order to accelerate operational achievements and the benefits of RPA.”

GSA’s CFO office and TTS will co-lead the community of practice.

Federal CIO Suzette Kent also said last year she expects to issue guidance to help agencies manage RPA software and laying out potential security and identity requirements for the bots.

“There are limitless opportunities for us as shared service provider to use bots to gain more effectiveness and efficiencies,” Schmader said.

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