robot hand on keyboard (Zapp2Photo/


Debunking common myths about federal automation

In today’s political climate, bipartisanship support has become as rare as an endangered species. When it comes to federal IT, though, both Democrats and Republicans agree that something must be done to modernize the nation's IT infrastructure.

IT modernization has become a top priority, signaled by the signing of two executive orders aimed at bolstering the nation’s cybersecurity and the creation of the American Technology Council. Most recently, the Modernizing Government Technology Act was included in the current Defense Department authorization bill, and that funding could soon be on its way.  

The core discussion point of modernization revolves around the quagmire of legacy IT across agencies. Although the U.S. Digital Service and other offices have made important strides, a surprising majority of federal agencies are still using outdated, manual systems  whose maintenance consumes the majority of their IT budgets. These aging systems have proved to be ineffective and problematic. Put simply, the federal government can’t keep using outdated IT systems and manual processes if it wants to accelerate its digital transformation efforts.

Automation is the solution to reducing risk, shrinking costs and breaking down data silos that are plaguing agencies. A recent survey by ServiceNow revealed 65 percent of federal decision-makers indicated their agency is considering an intelligent automation solution, and 77 percent said they would need greater automation within the next five years.   

These survey results show that although federal leaders say they are very interested in automation, they have yet to fully embrace any action. By looking deeper at the survey results, it becomes clear that myths associated with automation need debunking.

Myth #1: Automation eliminates jobs

The most common misconception about automation is the notion it will reduce the number of IT jobs across government. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. A McKinsey report suggests that less than 5 percent of occupations will be replaced with automated technology.

In fact, survey respondents seemed to clearly understand this fact as potential job eliminations and layoffs were cited by only 21 percent as a concern, putting it at the bottom of the list.

The reason why the “job elimination” myth continues is because federal employees still devote a significant amount of time to manual processes. Over three-quarters of respondents said they spend 10 to 20 hours per week on manual tasks, from manually updating spreadsheets to sending emails for approvals or requests cited as the most common tasks. Shockingly, a third said they still spend time hand-delivering papers.

By shifting to automation, these federal employees can be freed up to focus on value-added tasks to improve their efficiency. Instead of spending 10 hours a week updating spreadsheets, these employees can use those hours more effectively to deliver mission outcomes.

Myth #2: Automation causes cyber breaches

The nation is growing increasingly reliant upon technology to perform everyday tasks. However, as many agencies continue to operate outdated systems, some of which are over half a century old, they are increasingly prone to cyber risks.

Cyber breaches are, unfortunately, a fact in today's world, but automation does not exacerbate the issue. When asked what could benefit most from automation, more than half of respondents cited the creation of real-time analytics while 39 percent identified resolving security threats.

These results speak to what can be accomplished with automation, as it provides agencies a clearer view of IT infrastructure, from applications to networks, allowing IT professionals to quickly monitor and flag suspicious activity across the network. State-of-the-art technology that has faster response times enables agencies to easily identify and close holes in their security walls, mitigating incoming cyber threats.

Myth #3: Automation happens overnight

A common misconception is that automation will dramatically transform federal infrastructure instantaneously. Just as “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” the federal government’s digital transformation won’t happen in the blink of an eye -- it’s a gradual process. However, the lack of instant, widespread success at one agency can cause another agency leader to think twice before diving in.  

When asked to name the benefits of automation, 6 in 10 federal decision-makers agreed on the top four – accuracy, cost reduction, less time spent on tasks and freeing up staff. Still, one in three respondents said their agency does not have plans for intelligent automation.

I believe agencies should take a page from the private sector and identify those “easy” wins. By starting small and piloting automation projects, an agency can develop an approach that works. Routing, rating and forecasting workflows can easily replace manual approval cycles and are great places to start.

Over time, automation will transform the federal government’s IT infrastructure from the ground up, optimizing efficiency, cutting costs and strengthening its cybersecurity posture.

Automation’s moment has arrived for federal IT. Agencies must take advantage now or risk falling further behind.

About the Author

Bob Osborn is CTO Federal of ServiceNow.

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