RPA: 'It's entry-level AI'

How robotic process automation is helping automate tedious back-office processes at federal agencies.

automated processes (Nikolay Klimenko/Shutterstock.com)

Federal agencies that have begun harnessing softwarebots to automate repetitive processes in their internal operations are eliminating low-value work and setting the stage for wider use.

The General Services Administration has over a dozen robotic process automation (RPA) robots now in its systems, said Edward Burrows, the agency's RPA program manager. GSA is nearing the one-year anniversary of its aggressive effort to inject RPAs into agency processes.

Burrows said bots are involved in sending email payroll reports, interagency billing chargebacks and other repetitive tasks at GSA. A bot named Truman helps new vendors work through GSA's detailed review process. The agency wants two dozen more RPAs by the end of the fiscal year, Burrows said at the Association of Government Accountants' Feb. 28 National Leadership Training meeting in Washington, D.C.

RPAs make repetitive, sometimes-tedious processes such as data entry, more efficient and accurate, according to those using them. This can impact costs and workforce in many ways.

Teresa Hunter, deputy director of the Office of Financial Management at the Department of the Interior, is working with a contractor on a bot that closes out contracts for department contracting officers. The bot tracks the final account reconciliation. The bot was developed over the last year with a contractor and is in pilot now.

Mike Wetklow, the National Science Foundation's deputy chief financial officer and Financial Management Division director, said he has three bots that help his relatively small workforce with repetitive tasks

"It's entry-level AI," he said.

RPAs, said the managers, are the first wave of pushing more-intensive AI into federal processes that could drive profound changes in how agencies work.

NSF is working to build out governance processes for RPAs for other portions of its operations. Human resources and procurement operations, he said, have inquired about injecting RPAs into their processes. NSF is also working with GSA to develop AI and blockchain robot to help track grant payments.

Burrows, Hunter and Wetklow all said there was considerable homework to be done before the more-advanced automations were implemented.

The Interior Department winnowed down a list of 80 candidates for RPAs to one over a year, according to Hunter, as it looked for stable, repetitive processes where it could step in.

GSA has been working on an aggressive schedule since last year, Burrows said. The agency has identified priority areas, established a platform, worked out security approvals, as well as groundbreaking work on how to provide an RPA with an official authority to operate.

Identifying which processes are good candidates for automation, said Burrows, can take some effort. "Not all manual processes are good candidates," he noted.

Processes that are rule-based, frequent and repetitive are most amenable, he said. Data entry and data manipulation are fertile ground.

But RPAs also can be the entry point for larger AI projects, allowing agencies to take shorter steps, said Burrows, who added that he's talking with commercial companies who are producing dozens of robots a month and integrating them into their systems.

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