process automation (Zapp2Photo/Shutterstock.com)

RPA sees real deployment, but lacks standards

Technologies once considered novel and unfamiliar -- artificial intelligence, blockchain, virtual reality -- are now seeing real deployment within agencies, according to the General Services Administration’s Emerging Citizen Technology program.

One of these technologies, robotic process automation (RPA), saw its first deployment in NASA a little over a year ago. Now,  several agencies have fully deployed bots. The Food and Drug Administration alone has 17 in production, GSA's RPA Program Director Ed Burrows said at an Oct. 12 event at agency headquarters.

The technology also made its way into the President’s Management Agenda. A recent memo from the Office of Management and Budget encouraged agencies to start using RPA "to reduce repetitive administrative tasks, and other process-reform initiatives” and move employees to “high-value work.”

“Exciting times are not coming -- they’re here,” Curtina Smith, a policy analyst at OMB, said at the event.

But guidance from the executive branch has not had much to do with the spread of the technology throughout agencies, Burrows said in an interview. Adoption has been “more grassroots,” he said. “It’s simply a matter of more people hearing about it -- and its spreading that way -- and it will spread faster in the future.”

While RPA is growing within government, deployments are still on a small scale compared to the private sector where organizations have thousands of bots, he said. “They all started out every small, just like we are,” he said. “It’ll happen, it’s an exponential curve.”

Although the White House has urged agencies to take up this technology, there still aren’t any standards for how to deal with some of the basics, such as credentialing bots on government networks -- whether bots will use their own IDs or use the ID of an existing employee, Burrows said.

“That policy needs to be there to clear the way for faster ramp up, and it's not there. It’s not even close,” he said. “Essentially, agencies are figuring things out on their own. There is a lot of variation in the way agencies are doing things.”

When GCN spoke with NASA about its RPA deployment officials cited credentialing as one of the biggest pain points in the process. They ended up assigning the bots mock Social Security numbers so they could be issued PIV cards.

“Ultimately that’s got to be resolved,” Burrows said, who added that Federal CIO Suzette Kent has voiced awareness of this need for standards.

About the Author

Matt Leonard is a reporter/producer at GCN.

Before joining GCN, Leonard worked as a local reporter for The Smithfield Times in southeastern Virginia. In his time there he wrote about town council meetings, local crime and what to do if a beaver dam floods your back yard. Over the last few years, he has spent time at The Commonwealth Times, The Denver Post and WTVR-CBS 6. He is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University, where he received the faculty award for print and online journalism.

Leonard can be contacted at mleonard@gcn.com or follow him on Twitter @Matt_Lnrd.

Click here for previous articles by Leonard.


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