The 3 Waves of Accelerating RPA in Government

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When it comes time to actually execute RPA, it’s tough to know where to start and how to scale agencywide.

Shifting from low-value to high-value work—and eliminating the burden of manual, repetitive tasks to help public servants focus on mission-critical ones— is a key focus for the federal workforce and a central goal outlined in the most recent President’s Management Agenda

Robotic process automation, or RPA, is at the forefront of emerging technologies that could significantly reduce the amount of the low-value, redundant tasks highlighted in the PMA. Specifically, RPA can automate tasks such as data entry, email management and retrieving information from documents or call centers—with a higher throughput rate, significantly reduced error rates, and less reliance on costly contractor support. 

But when it comes time to actually execute RPA, it’s tough to know where to start and how to scale agencywide. Without the right people and strategy in place, RPA bots are more likely to be deployed in a fragmented manner, and if different teams or departments are using different bots, processes are not documented and captured, and no one knows what to do in the event of bot failure.

That’s why, regardless of where agencies are in their RPA journey, it’s essential to dedicate time to enroot operations and management upfront. A center of excellence can help agencies advance their RPA efforts by establishing a plan for governance, templated tools and training, performance measurement and reporting, and teams to help navigate the transition from a pilot project to scaling across an entire agency.

To properly set up a CoE, agency leaders first need to identify which “wave” (or level of advancement) their agency falls under. Whether in the discovery or deployment stages, organizations tend to go through three waves of RPA: Wave One it the discovery and pilot stage; Wave Two is the develop and deploy stage; and Wave Three is the advanced distribute and scale stage. 

By having a CoE to guide RPA efforts throughout each wave—whether serving as the beginner’s guide or a catalyst to the next stage of production—agencies can better ensure a successful RPA implementation.

Wave One: Discover and Pilot

Agencies in Wave One are in the discovery stage in which leaders may have a pilot in place to determine where RPA is working, how it can fit into the organization and what processes should be automated. 

For example, agencies in this first wave should focus on designing a concept of operations for their RPA program to determine where the technology might work across their businesses. Some agencies may also automate a handful of processes locally within business organizations and begin coordinating the identification and development of the next automations. Currently, there are numerous agencies across government in this first wave.

Wave Two: Develop and Deploy

Agencies in Wave Two have already built at least one or two bots with leadership onboard and aware of the capabilities the bot(s) can deliver. Additionally, agencies will typically see more tangible return on investment in this stage, like increased productivity time for employees or even cost savings. As of today, most government agencies fall within the early phases of Wave Two. 

As mentioned in past news reports, NASA has implemented four bots to automate funds distribution, create procurement requests, and assign cases to human resources staff. Since then, another four bots have been created, 15 are ready to go through development and more than 100 ideas have been submitted for more potential use cases.

Additionally, as reported, the General Services Administration has over a dozen RPA bots operating within its systems. Regarded as a federal driver for effective RPA implementation, the agency has even set up a community of practice to serve as an information hub for other federal agencies exploring RPA.

Wave Three: Distribute and Scale

The key challenge for government agencies will be getting to Wave Three, where bots are in production and ready to scale across entire organizations. The Agriculture Department is on the cusp of this wave with the stand-up of their center of excellence, implementation of their first process that can scale across the department, and a mechanism to respond to automation requests for every agency and staff office within the USDA. For many agencies, what will be especially difficult is integrating “digital workers” into the human workforce and having the right change-management plan in place to do so. 

This is where establishing a CoE can be most beneficial—helping agencies navigate from managing a single bot to entire fleets of bots at the enterprise level. Setting up the right teams to manage the CoE and the scaling of an RPA program can make all the difference for an agency trying to advance from Wave Two to Wave Three. 

These essential teams include a business team that identifies opportunities where automation can work and manage change readiness accordingly; a digital management office team that oversees the vision, roadmap, and configuration and documents each stage accordingly; and the technology team comprised of application subject matter experts and developers who understand the nitty-gritty of RPA code, packages and tools.

RPA has the potential to drive real mission value, but only if it’s done strategically. A CoE can help leaders effectively navigate each of the three waves of RPA. Most importantly, the payoff can be higher in the end when agencies accelerate their RPA efforts in an organized, centralized manner and fully advance into Wave Three.  

Marc Mancher is a principal for Deloitte Consulting and global public services robotics and cognitive leader.