Automation Can Make Agencies' Tough Budget Decisions Easier

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A few agencies are using a new technology that will help them meet these budget targets without reducing programs.

The president’s 2020 budget request is still about a month away from being announced publicly. But federal agencies are already working to address an expected five-percent budget cut, and they have a new digital tool in their arsenal that hasn’t available to them in past years.

President Trump announced in October a five-percent cut to federal agencies’ budgets, and these cuts likely have already been received by federal agency heads from the Office of Management and Budget. Agencies and OMB traditionally wrap up their negotiations on budget numbers in early December, ahead of the president’s overall federal budget submission on or around the first Monday in February.

Now comes the more difficult challenge for agency leadership: making the tough decisions about what programs or staffing to cut in order to meet the budget targets for 2020. Regardless of what final agency budget levels Congress provides through the appropriations process, agency heads received a clear directive from the president and will need to show their responsiveness by finding ways to meet the president’s mandate. But a few agencies are using a new technology that will help them meet these budget targets without reducing programs through robotic process automation, or RPA.

RPA is technology that allows users to configure software, called a robot, that can mimic the repetitive, transactional and rules-based tasks humans make with digital systems. These robots, or digital assistants, can be relatively easily developed and can reduce costs while enhancing delivery of customer services. The private sector has already implemented rapid-adoption of RPA to free up thousands of hours of staff time for more customer-facing activities.

As agency leadership and CIOs look to find areas to cut their budgets, they’re looking at a few of their forward-thinking colleagues who have already reduced agency costs while enhancing service by implanting RPA.

Twenty-five federal agencies have already put their robotic toes in the water. At NASA, their first robot, affectionately named George Washington, is helping the agency distribute funds provided by Congress in hours instead of days. At the General Services Administration, their robot Truman is supporting the agency with pre-negotiation tasks, reducing to seconds what had previously taken an hour per task.

These agencies who have already started reducing costs by implementing RPA are scaling up to do more based on their initial successes. NASA has several robots in service now, with another 300 more in their pipeline. But the public sector has generally just scratched the surface of the potential;  a recent study by Deloitte says these technologies could save more than 1.1 billion federal government working hours every year. The digital workforce is on its way, with both artificial intelligence and RPA providing dramatically improved government services.

RPA isn’t a budget panacea, however. Lessons learned from these early adopters will help agencies starting the RPA process. First, pick a smaller, more manageable project for the agency’s first digital assistant, such as a medium-complexity task performed by a dozen or so staffers that can be thoroughly documented. Involve CIOs in the development process to ensure security concerns are met. And set up an internal RPA team to share ideas and discuss best practices across several projects.

RPA isn’t the only answer for agencies trying to meet their 2020 budget cut numbers, but it is the only change that allows agencies to shift robotic work to computers, letting civil servants focus more on taxpayers. For the first time, a five-percent budget reduction can help agencies reduce their costs and not only maintain their current level of services to taxpayers but improve speed and accuracy of services provided.

Jim Walker is the former RPA lead at NASA Shared Services Center in Stennis, Mississippi. He is currently director of public sector marketing for UiPath.