Federal RPA Solutions Have One Thing In Common: No Two Are Alike

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Robotic process automation leads from across government and industry met this week to share early lessons learned from efforts to automate federal agencies.

Members of the government’s Robotic Process Automation Community of Interest held an industry day Tuesday to share their common experiences and challenges in attempting to automate some of the rote processes that eat up so much of federal employees’ time.

While members of the community of interest were able to meet and share ideas on RPA adoption, those in attendance learned their individual use cases had as many differences as similarities, according to the team from IRS, which hosted the industry day in conjunction with the General Services Administration and the Office of Personnel Management.

For example, one IRS employee in attendance was able to offer six distinct use cases for RPA in their office alone, according to IRS Deputy Chief Procurement Officer Harrison Smith, who offered some insight into the industry day during a call with reporters Wednesday.

One of the big takeaways for Smith—which he plans to apply to the RPA projects under the new Pilot IRS program—is that automation efforts will not be uniform across government.

“They’re not all going to look the same,” he said. “You have to make sure that if it’s an automation solution for another environment that you have the technology [people] and you have the systems integrators able to talk to the people who are actually performing the work.”

This differs from the way government normally does business, Smith said, but having those discussions is the only way to figure out exactly the problem that needs to be solved—and, in turn, find the right solution.

“This concept, as opposed to going off into a closet and spending weeks and months and sometimes years and generating a ‘thou shalt do this’ list of things. [Instead,] have an industry day, have a telephone call, maybe have a screen share—if that’s appropriate given the sensitivity of the system—to say, ‘This is what we actually do and this is what’s frustrating and this is what I wish could really happen.’ Having that direct engagement with the folks who generate the technology,” Smith said.

Those conversations need to include industry, as well, he added, something that doesn’t always come naturally to government buyers. Industry days like the one held Tuesday can help, Smith said, but they don’t go far enough. As one systems integrator explained during a panel, program managers need to go beyond those integrators and have real conversations with the companies building the technology.

“If you’re not talking to the firms that actually generate the technology and provide the software and say, ‘These are our problems, this is what we’re trying to tackle,’ their next iteration of that software, it will have less and less chance it will actually improve your day to day processes,” Smith recalled the integrator saying.

Smith cited estimates that project spending on automation tools will triple in the next two to three years and predicted the RPA industry landscape will expand accordingly. He encouraged federal managers adopting RPA to have more of those granular conversations—with staff, with integrators and will the companies creating new solutions—and to focus those conversations both on current needs and the future.

“It’s really having an understanding of how do I match up what my current needs are with the solution that we’re going to apply in the near-term, but also keeping those lines of conversation open and moving ahead—making sure everybody is on a similar sheet of music,” he said.