By Philip Reed
On Jan. 15, 2020, the General Services Administration published a Robotic Process Automation Program Playbook to assist federal agencies in initiating robotics programs and implementing them into their daily processes.
WAPA is currently exploring the potential of robotics and automation, with Finance being the first department to implement RPA-based solutions.
“The goal of robotics is to help automate many of the manual tasks," said Financial Systems Analyst Jon Holstine. “If there's a task that you have a step-by-step document for, it's possible that RPA can help by automating it and allowing employees to move on to higher-level tasks. That helps the organization become more efficient overall."
Holstine works on the project with Supervisory Accountant Justin Borsheim, who is leading the efforts. The team also includes Accountant Veronica Gallegos and Information Technology Specialist Steve Palmer.
The word “robotics" can lead to some confusion about what is actually involved, and Holstine is quick to dispel misconceptions.
“When people hear 'robotics,' they end up thinking about something fun and flashy, like one of those toy dogs that jumps around or responds to commands," he said. “In this context, though, that toy dog is just something inside of a computer, making processes easier and doing some of the work that frees us up for the other things that need our attention."
“Robotics" in this context refers to automation technology for manual, rule-based and repetitive tasks performed electronically. The bots are essentially software programs of compressed code, designed to streamline and expedite logically organized tasks. They can search, analyze, organize and collate faster than humans.
“The technology is able to do many impressive things," he said. “In the financial system, for instance, the bots can enter data, find data, read forms, collate information across programs and more. If you think about an Excel macro, it can function in a similar way, but it can also cross between systems. If you receive information through one program and need to input it into another, the bots can be taught to use both systems, taking the right data from one place and putting it where it belongs."
Holstine has learned a lot from his experience implementing RPA in Finance, and he hopes that the improvements don't stop there.
“RPA can basically perform any process that has a standard desk guide or procedure and requires limited decisions to be made," he explained. “Other agencies are using bots a lot in human resources and contracting. Our goal is to ramp up the program properly to best benefit WAPA."
Where to begin
Efforts began in Finance, where the team developed the technology to process invoices.
“Processing invoices is obviously time consuming," Holstine said. “Traditionally, you'd have a person sitting and doing the same thing on repeat, one invoice after another. We saw a real opportunity there to use robotic software to speed that up."
This software solution shaves off significant time of the process by reading each email that contains an invoice, moving that email to a folder, identifying the necessary information contained on the invoice and populating that information into a financial database.
“With a solution such as this, the employee isn't doing any of that," he said. “They are confirming the data on a screen and the software does the rest. An employee still needs to be involved, to ensure that the data is being pulled across correctly, but the number of invoices they can process increases substantially."
The promising results in Finance have Holstine thinking about how RPA can benefit other programs and processes throughout WAPA.
“It's not just paperwork," he said. “Paperwork is an obvious place to start, but any kind of process that has a step-by-step guide can be a good candidate for automation. Even if something can't be fully automated, it may be possible to automate parts of it, so that employees need to perform fewer steps themselves and the process can be completed much more quickly."
Holstine mentioned that he is working with Information Technology and other teams, including those involved with Maximo, in the hopes of bringing RPA capabilities to more of WAPA.
Help on the way
RPA is an evolving technology, and its applications are likely far larger than what anybody has yet considered. Holstine is certain that many teams throughout the organization could find their burdens eased and their processes improved by solutions similar to what the RPA team was able to implement within Finance.
“Federal-use cases span all kinds of programs and departments," he said. “You can automatically download reports, manipulate the data from those reports in Excel and send emails out to people to let them know it's done. You can verify that forms have been filled out correctly. If you have a month-end or year-end process, this can likely help with that, too."
Holstine mentioned that the Department of Agriculture is already using robotics in many ways, including gathering data, performing reconciliations, running queries to pull data and automating various reports. He also pointed out that WAPA is ahead of the curve as far as implementing the technology goes.
“We are up and running, and we are one of the only agencies using the machine-learning and artificial-intelligence aspect of RPA," he said. “The Department of Agriculture is just starting to look into using the machine learning and AI combo."
He emphasized the enormous potential for process improvement from technology like this.
“My experience is with Finance, but you can use this anywhere," he said. “WAPA kicked off with this particular bot, and it was a large undertaking. It's a notable success and, now that we have this set up, we are able to move into different areas and see what we can improve there."
Reaping the benefits
Ultimately, process automation benefits the organization in a number of ways, even beyond the obvious increase in efficiency and employee bandwidth.
“In the long run, RPA has a lot to offer federal agencies and programs," said Holstine. “It can streamline internal operations, enhance technology, improve audits and reduce workloads associated with data analytics and reporting. The key is to move forward with the technology strategically and in balance with the priorities of governance and productivity."
He also believes that RPA can help organizations prepare for change that looms in the future.
“The government has an aging workforce, with a large percentage of them poised to retire within the next few years," he said. “When they go, their knowledge and experience go with them. Automation along these lines can help ease the transition in areas and programs that may see the greatest shortfall. It can keep employees from being overworked, as well, which helps to retain them."
Ultimately, solutions such as these save money for organizations, as they won't have to invest as much time in training new hires to do the most repetitious tasks. Employees are able to dedicate themselves to more projects at once rather than getting bogged down for extended periods in repetitive ones.
“We are trying to become as efficient as possible," he said. “With potential burnouts and waves of retirement ahead, this is the perfect time to look for opportunities."
He encourages programs and employees who are interested in discussing these opportunities to get in touch.
“If anyone is interested in discussing ideas for potential processes to automate, we want to hear from you," said Holstine. “Reach out to me or Justin. We'll talk about it and make sure it's a good fit. Whatever improvements we can identify at WAPA, we are happy to help."
Note: Reed was a public affairs specialist.