Defense Logistics Agency Enlists ‘Citizen Developers’ to Grow its RPA Bot Army


The agency currently deploys 40 new bots a year—but has big plans to double that.

Robotic process automation is making waves across the Defense Logistics Agency, as program leaders and employees alike are turning to—and building—bots to complete tedious tasks. 

“We're finding the pent up demand for folks who want to develop their own bots and take some control of their IT destiny,” DLA’s Chief Information Officer George Duchak told Nextgov during the recent Roadmap to Modernization Summit. 

DLA is “kind of a bit of a unique beast within the government,” in his view.

The agency is funded through a working capital fund rather than with appropriated funds. The working capital fund is replenished as the agency uses its large volume buying power to procure products and services it then resells to its customers within DOD and at times foreign governments at reduced prices.

“Last year, we did somewhere around $42 billion in revenue, which would place us around in the mid-70s on the Fortune 100 list of companies. So, it's a significant operation,” Duchak explained. “We're in 28 countries, I think 46 states. We manage eight supply chains, we have six major subordinate commands of roughly 26,000 people—and about 90-plus percent, depending on which aspect you're talking about, of our acquisitions are automated.”

With its heavy reliance on automation to conduct high level volumes of business, DLA is increasingly leaning on RPA to free up personnel and automate repetitive functions.

Currently, the agency is two years into a hefty modernization journey and IT upgrade, dubbed its digital business transformation.

“Since this is the first major modernization in a couple of decades, we are relooking at all of our business processes—do they still make sense? Can we do things differently? Can we do things faster? Can we do things more efficiently?” Duchak noted.

Part of this technology-focused revamp involves a concerted effort around change management, according to the CIO. He also reflected on a variety of topics during the panel, including some of the progress DLA has made in the area of RPA. 

The agency began deploying bots that perform repetitive tasks about two years ago. On average, DLA develops about 40 bots per year within its CIO office. Presently, between 120 and 130 are deployed, and some of those are unattended bots. 

“They use their own credentials. They could work 24/7 and they don't have a union representative,” Duchak said. “So you can really save a lot of opportunity cost of labor by deploying those bots.”

He noted that over time DLA officials started to realize that many more of the agency’s processes could be automated. Recently, they created a program for “citizen developers” for personnel with ideas for automation to go through training to make and maintain their own bot software.

“It was very successful on the beta project we tried, and now we're going to roll that out across the rest of the organization. We think this will enable us to double our bot production to somewhere around 80 bots per year. And just to give you an idea of how much labor that saves, that saves somewhere in 160 to 200,000 labor hours per year on the bots that we've already deployed,” Duchak said. “So, if we could double that every year, that's going to be a significant labor savings for people now to do higher order tasks, rather than the routine, the dull, uninteresting type of work.” 

Moving forward, his office aims to implement a specific curriculum and training programs to drive the development of more bots. 

“When I came into the government, there were things like Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint—those were the tools that everybody had to learn,” Duchak said. “Well today, I think robotic process automation, low code, no code coding tools, and things like that are just going to be table stakes for the generation that's entering the workforce now.”