Embracing Intelligent Automation to Transform Government Services
Grappling with an aging workforce, tightening budgets, continuous legislative changes and an uncertain economic landscape, government agencies are under immense pressure to do more with less. Typical cost-cutting measures are either not feasible or no longer enough, and budget approvals for additional staff are limited. Leaders must find a sustainable solution to generate greater output with fewer resources and be able to implement with little notice when policy changes become law.
Faced with similar challenges, the private sector has embraced intelligent automation (IA) to generate the productivity and efficiency needed to stay ahead as profit margins shrink and digital transformation accelerates. The same outcomes can be realized in the public sector as well.
While some federal agencies have adopted entry-level use of IA with the implementation of robotic process automation (RPA), RPA is just the beginning of the automation continuum and a building block for advanced capabilities like artificial intelligence and machine learning.
Between the abundance of data and time-consuming administrative workflows, the opportunities for automation within government are plentiful. While complex bureaucracies and antiquated technology can be barriers to change, IA has the potential to fundamentally transform government services and deliver the outcomes customers not only need but demand.
Advancing the Scope of Automation
In recent years, automation has evolved from physical machines or robots performing tasks in settings such as manufacturing to realizing a broader potential in operational and administrative workflows.
While automation is generally defined as the process of setting up machines to perform human tasks, intelligent automation comprises software that extends the reach of what can be automated, providing additional value and insights to an organization. For example, RPA — the most straightforward intelligent automation software — can be configured to execute repetitive processes across multiple applications, freeing up significant resources.
Intelligently automating operations can be integrated in many ways, such as application and claims processing, identity verification, program eligibility, paperwork processing, data migration and compliance audits. Automating these activities minimizes human error, speeds up processing times and allows for the reallocation of staff to more complex and strategic work, providing organizations an opportunity to upskill employees and expand their capabilities.
To an extent, the more basic forms of intelligent automation are already embedded within the systems many government agencies use for claims processing, email, customer relationship management (CRM), enterprise resource planning (ERP) and other critical functions.
Some agencies have even started to realize the benefits of integrating automation software within their processes. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) implemented artificial intelligence-powered chatbots to file questions and screen individuals for the virus. Seeing the emerging technology’s potential within public health, the VA, Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Defense Health Agency (DHA) increased spending on automation by more than 200% between fiscal years 2018 and 2020.
Given the success of automation to date, there is ample opportunity for government agencies to expand the use of automation and explore how more advanced automation like machine learning and optical character recognition can produce more effective and efficient operations.
Evolving the Workforce for the Future
Automation does not have to equate to eliminating human labor; rather, it’s a way to refocus employees on higher-value work, which can lead to better morale and improved employee retention. This applies to all levels of an agency, from reducing the burden of analysts’ data entry tasks to giving directors and their deputies more accurate budgeting and strategic planning insights.
As agencies embrace and expand IA capabilities, it’s vital that leaders ensure IA is being integrated in a way that doesn’t overstep staff or customer boundaries. Taking a people-oriented approach to IA is the best way to build trust and increase engagement.
It may seem counterintuitive to focus on the human element of automation, but given the unique elements of the federal workforce, automation efforts have better adoption when the workforce is involved. Involvement can include collaborating with labor unions early and often, talking to staff openly about automation, or seeking staff input for use cases and involving them in development.
Reframing the Value of Intelligent Automation Investments
As in any industry, implementing technology to simply check a box wastes time and resources. An investment should have a clearly defined purpose and an expected return on investment. Calculating the value of intelligent automation requires a clear vision and plan for how any gained efficiencies will be passed on to constituents through improved services or reinvested in other government services.
For example, the 100,000 hours of manual work that the VA saved by automating the cancellation of six months of medical copayments did not result in reduced resources but instead freed up staff to focus on a more veteran-centric task, improving both the veteran and employee experience.
With agencies increasingly asked to serve as strategic advisers to help educate Congress on key issues, automation unlocks the resources necessary to initiate meaningful recommendations to drive change. Less time and funding devoted to routine work also frees departments to reinvest in recruiting and developing talent to support long-term goals.
As federal agencies seek to meet escalating demands and improve customer experience, leaders face an imperative to achieve greater efficiency and deliver reliable, high-quality services. With the right implementation vision and strategy, intelligent automation provides a means to maximize existing resources, improve overall performance and position agencies for the future.