Deploying Bots Demands Workforce Buy-in

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Agency officials detailed an important lesson they learned when implementing robotic process automation. 

As agencies introduce robotic process automation to relieve personnel from tedious, manual tasks, federal officials say gaining employee buy-in across many teams and levels have proven to be a critical key in deployment success. 

At ACT-IAC’s BOTs Forum in Washington Thursday, agency officials shared the joys and woes of their RPA journeys and emphasized the importance of effective change management in dealing with cutting-edge disruptions.  

“People, of course, are the key to a successful adoption,” the Office of Personnel Management’s Deputy Director Michael Rigas said. 

OPM is participating in the federal government’s community of practice, which brings interested agencies together to accelerate RPA adoption. Rigas said OPM is also working directly with agencies to advance their human resource components and support them in communicating the right messages when introducing the technology. He said it’s vital to point out that for many, it will make their jobs more efficient: “You’ll have to do less of the things you don’t want to do on your job and more of the things that you do want to do,” he said.

The deputy director added that as agencies deploy RPA, it’s important to include people from all levels of the workforce. That means involving those on the frontline who’ll work directly with the tech, as well as their supervisors to hone in on the best processes to automate. It’s also critical to involve other key agency components to avoid hurdles down the road.   

“So you want to engage with your general counsel’s office, your human capital office, your privacy office, [the chief information officer], and say ‘hey this is what we are looking to do, do you guys see any issues that we need to address,’” he said. “And they’ll probably say yes.”

At the National Science Foundation, Financial Analyst Margaret Moon is also working to accelerate employee’s adoption of the technology. She said it’s important to help people understand that RPA is really just the implementation of a software project, which requires strong documentation, testing, support model and strategic plan for rollout. Once leaders define and demonstrate the potential impacts, she’s seen the workforce excitedly buy in. 

“Key to all of that is communication,” she said. “Because people are afraid—or, people are afraid of the unknown.”

At the General Services Administration, Supervisory Budget Analyst Alicia Saucedo has also come to see that RPA efforts “are really just like a big change management project” because it completely changes the way processes are executed.

“And it’s true, people in the organization really are the biggest challenge when it comes to implementing RPA projects,” she said. “So I would recommend that you really engage at multiple levels in the organization.”

Saucedo shared details around four ongoing GSA bot deployments to inspire attendees own ideas to bring back to their organizations. 

“One of the first bots that we made that is recently coming on its one year birthday, or anniversary, was a bot that completely transformed our micropurchase process at GSA,” she said. 

As high-volume, low-dollar transactions that have to be hand-keyed into the financial system, the micropurchases process made for a strong RPA candidate. In one of the agency’s “first, and biggest” projects, insiders automated all of the data entries into the financial system, so that people involved no longer have to do so by hand. A separate “workforce bot” that was deployed around the same time prepares receiving reports for recurring service projects. The bot runs “faithfully” once a month, she said, and prepares hundreds of receiving reports for contracting officers to review and accept. 

“This is a huge time saver for folks that work in this recurring service area at GSA,” Saucedo said. 

In the realm of accounts payable, the agency is also using a bot that sends out daily notices of invoices that are in need of receiving reports. In the past, every single day people would “send out emails over and over again,” until the reports would come out. “Now, they don’t have to do that—we have that all automated—so that’s a big volume bot,” she said. 

And the agency on Monday deployed its youngest bot, which will complete administrative modifications in its acquisition system. Through the various efforts Saucedo has come to see for herself that it’s critical to include everyone from subject matter experts to people who are working in the trenches with the tech, as that’s where the best ideas will come from. 

“You really need to engage at the working level, throughout the working level,” she said. Later, she added, “it’s really important, like any change management effort—you just simply cannot communicate too much.”

And agencies interested in leaning into the new technology could soon have more support. Rigas added that OPM will soon be working with GSA to design and administer an RPA upskilling academy which will address how to approach the automation and develop and maintain RPA bots. 

“We’re excited to say we have funding for this as part of the upcoming budget and we think it will really help to accelerate the adoption of RPA across the federal government,” he said.