How GSA Is Helping the Government Embrace Automation

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The agency, which plans to have more than two dozen bots deployed by the end of the year, is standing up a community of practice around the technology.

The General Services Administration is doubling down on bots as a way to free employees from the more tedious aspects of their jobs, and it’s trying to help other agencies follow suit.

On Thursday, GSA officials announced they are creating an interagency community of practice for robotic process automation, an umbrella term for tools that automate repetitive administrative tasks. The group would bring together leaders from across government to share their experiences with RPA and increase adoption of the tech at their respective agencies, Ed Burrows, GSA’s RPA program manager, said in a blog post.

By reducing the time feds spend on manual tasks like searching databases and filling out forms, RPA could free up the workforce to focus on more interesting, human-centric work. And as many agencies grapple with shrinking workforces and tighter budgets, bots offer a cheap way to do more with less.

In its president’s management agenda, the Trump administration underscored RPA’s potential to make government more efficient and called on agencies to start exploring potential applications of the tech. Since GSA's announcement, 18 agencies have reached out asking to join the community of practice, GSA Press Secretary Pam Dixon told Nextgov.

“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,” said Burrows, who will chair the community of practice. “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.”

GSA Chief Financial Officer Gerard Badorreck and Technology Transformation Services Director Anil Cheriyan will serve as executive sponsors of the community of practice. In an interview with Nextgov last week, Cheriyan floated the idea of creating a new center of excellence focused on RPA.

While many agencies have begun experimenting with the tech, GSA has emerged as the de facto epicenter of federal RPA efforts. The agency, whose federal contracting work generates its fair share of repetitive tasks, has at least 10 bots deployed within various parts of the organization, and officials plan to double that figure by the end of the year.

“[RPA] is a technology that's proven itself to work and deliver results for us,” said Jeff Lau, a regional commissioner in the agency’s Federal Acquisition Service.

Recently, Lau spearheaded the launch of a bot that automatically reviews new contractors for the agency’s Multiple Award Schedules program. The process, which involves copying information from multiple databases and pasting it in an official document, takes contracting officers 15 minutes on average to complete, but the bot gets it done in seconds, Lau told Nextgov.

The bot, which officials named Truman after GSA’s founder, President Harry Truman, was deployed in the agency’s Northeast region last year, and today three more regional offices are testing the tech. Thus far, he said, the feedback from employees has been “very positive.”

“There's general consensus that there's a lot of work, the cutting and pasting, [officers] do today that they actually don't enjoy doing,” he said. With Truman, they have “an opportunity to do more challenging work.”

GSA still faces some internal obstacles to deploying Truman and similar bots—namely figuring out what systems each one should be allowed to access—but nothing beyond the growing pains typical of any new tech adoption, Lau said. Based on Truman’s reception in other offices, he said, GSA would continue improving the bot and offering it up to more contracting offices across the agency.

“If you look at traditional process improvement methodologies ... they can only get you so far,” Lau said. “As we're looking to create that acquisition workforce of the future, [RPA] creates some bandwidth where our workforce can actually focus on reskilling and ... becoming stronger contracting officers that can support agency missions and really deliver better service.”

Editor's note: This story was updated to include comments from GSA.