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How Will Automated Software Change the Nature of Work Inside Agencies?

How would work inside federal agencies change if staffers did not have to spend hours every week opening email attachments, copying and pasting data and performing rote IT tasks? A new kind of autonomous software known as process robotics could make that world a reality.

Agencies are not ready to move fully in that direction just yet, but they are exploring it. The implications could be far-reaching, and process robotics could allow staffers to spend more of their time to focus on mission-specific work.

As FedScoop reports, process robotics is “a type of system and software automation, very different from traditional mechanical robotics.”

Exploring a New Path with Autonomous Software

Marc Mancher, principal and federal process robotics leader at Deloitte Consulting LLP, told FedScoop that at least five agencies have worked with Deloitte Consulting on nine proofs of concept for the technology so far. Mancher said he is conducting two or three demonstrations of the technology per week to federal clients.

The goal is to use the software to replace humans who spend their time performing highly repeatable rules-based tasks. Ideally, those human workers would then have more time to work on more complicated tasks that machines can’t yet perform and that are more directly tied to their agency’s mission.

One key benefit of offloading such work to software? They don’t need to sleep or get paid overtime. As FedScoop explains:

“These process bots can work around the clock — where typically a person can only work eight or ten hours — opening email attachments, cutting and pasting structured data, following if-then rules, making calculations, logging into applications, collecting social media, extracting structured data, scraping data from the web, and more, Mancher said.”

Terry Weipert, executive vice president of government at Sutherland Global Services, told FedScoop that agencies like the technology but are still determining how to put it in place. Mancher said that process robotics can be deployed on an office computer, in a virtual environment, in the cloud or wherever is most convenient for the IT department.

“The reason that it’s taking hold so fast is that it’s quick to implement, tremendously high-impact and it’s low-cost,” he said. “In my career I’ve never seen anything like it.”

So far, the tests have allowed the bots to automate finance, claims and even laboratory processes. “One of our clients who we built a proof of concept for had data scientists that were taking data out of emails and [Microsoft] Excel and putting them into their database… they weren’t actually doing real scientific work,” Mancher said. “And this [proof of concept] is going to enable the scientists to get away from the computer, doing the rudimentary, and get them back to doing the scientific work. So that’s heart of mission.”

Deloitte does not have a favored software approach and will instead work to help agencies figure out where they can use the technology while helping with deployments, Mancher said.

What Tasks Could Bots Perform?

Weipert told FedScoop that process robotics can solve the “swivel chair model,” in which data needs to be entered into one system and then the entity entering the information must enter the same data into another system. Mancher also said that bots can reach across disparate legacy systems.

Some agencies, he said, “hire support contractors because IT systems are not integrated. In other words, you’re hiring somebody to … sit and look for an email coming in and to move it to another system because there’s not right now enough time or money in the IT budgets to integrate the systems.”

Process robotics can allow agencies to “integrate it and you don’t need support contractors,” he said. “And that money can go back to mission.”

While it may seem a bit of a stretch to offload the work of multiple staffers to a bot, Mancher said that with robots, agencies can track how much work was done and check its quality.

“If you have 30 people doing something, at the end of the day there’s no report on what they did,” he said. But with a bot, “you actually now know what happened because the bot produces a report on what happened during the day so you actually have more accountability.”

There are challenges to implementing the technology, Weipert said, since bots may cross into multiple contracts to perform their tasks; this could create confusion. Sometimes, she added, agencies have not adequately documented how their processes get done and may not know how to best deploy process robotics.

“Especially in the legacy world, they don’t quite understand maybe all the data feeds in some cases; they haven’t documented the process flow. You have to do that — that is a first step,” she told FedScoop. “Don’t go out and buy the tools if you don’t know how you’re going to use it.”

There are other applications for intelligent bots in the federal market. Chatbots — automated and intelligent messaging services that can hold conversations with users — could replace customer service agents.

Earlier this year, Booz Allen Hamilton, a consulting firm that works extensively with the federal government, and Conversable, a company that helps enterprises create intelligent conversational messaging services, unveiled a partnership around chatbots, which take advantage of artificial intelligence.

Specifically, the companies announced in a statement that they are working on “a joint strategic focus to advance, test and deliver world-class automated interactive messaging, tools, services, and experiences that fundamentally enhance and transform customer care in all channels.” The goal is to make customer service more seamless and intuitive, eliminate call centers and cut operational costs.

This content is made possible by FedTech. The editorial staff of Nextgov was not involved in its preparation.

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