GSA bot builders add workforce capacity
- By Stephanie Kanowitz
- Apr 01, 2020
As federal, state and local agencies try to manage the flood of inquiries related to COVID-19, bots are serving on the front lines. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Coronavirus Self Checker, for example, uses a series of questions related to the patient’s age, location and symptoms and advises what kind of medical attention they should seek, offloading those questions from health professionals.
Even before the coronavirus outbreak, however, robotic process automation (RPA) was gaining traction in government, as common business functions performed by staff transitioned to automated processes. To accelerate adoption, some agencies are retraining employees to learn how to build bots.
Reskilled workers at the General Services Administration have created more than 40 automations across the agency’s business functions in the areas of data reporting, migration and entry, and other rules-based manual tasks, increasing capacity by more than 90,000 hours.
Twenty employees in GSA’s Office of the Chief Financial Officer (OCFO) participated in the RPA Program, an initiative that trains workers on the craft of automation. Office managers compared workers’ current skill sets with those that OFCO needs and worked with software firm UiPath on training, a GSA spokesperson told GCN.
“This strategy enabled us to move existing employees to higher value work, and to increase their engagement and satisfaction with their new roles,” the spokesperson wrote.
Twelve of the 20 workers received the company’s Advanced Developer certification and were assigned to teams of three to four developers to begin projects. Six employees have become full-time developers on the RPA Program team.
One of the automations that resulted is the Accounts Payable (AP) Email Notification bot, which supports the Prompt Payment Act that requires agencies to pay invoices within 30 days of receiving an invoice or the requested goods and services. The bot automated the processes for notifying contracting officers and their representatives, contract specialists and their respective first- and second-line supervisors about outstanding invoices, the spokesperson said. That reduced time workers spent updating spreadsheets and let office staff focus on efforts to ensure timely payment and compliance.
Other success stories include the Daily News Bot, which aggregates GSA-related news for agencywide dissemination, and the 889 Bot, which processes thousands of bilateral contract modifications required by a new Federal Acquisition Regulation rule regarding contracts with certain countries, the spokesperson said. The 889 bot can do in six minutes what used to take an hour.
The added capacity, which amounts to 45 full-time employees – has not displaced workers, but freed them “to spend more time on the work that is driving the agency forward,” the spokesperson said. “Another benefit of our adoption of RPA is that it, in essence, creates a 24/7 workforce that can carry out tasks when people might not be able to.”
The fear of losing jobs to automation is a common misconception, said Jim Walker, federal chief technology officer at UiPath, which handled the training at GSA.
“Lifelong learners who are paying attention right now realize that a skill set that they have may not be needed by an agency five or six years from now. But RPA -- and by extension machine learning and artificial intelligence and chatbots and natural language processing -- are all going to be in the workplace in the five- to 10-year timeframe, so they are making themselves valuable now [by] retraining and reskilling,” Walker said. “We really want to democratize RPA and let everybody know how to use it.”
The company offers several training options, including in-person workshops at agencies, free one-day RPA Adds Value Everywhere workshops in the Washington, D.C., area and a free online academy. Walker said he’s seen participants in all age groups embracing these learning opportunities.
Although training staff to build automated tools themselves may be slower than contracting with a company that sells bots, many agencies are looking to invest in their workforce, Walker said. Additionally, the effort is in line with the Trump administration’s Pledge to American Workers to enlist the private sector to retrain and reskill workers for the digital workforce. As a signatory to that, UiPath pledged to retrain 750,000 government workers over five years. In the DC area, it plans to reskill 2,020 people this year as part of its 2,020 by 2020 program, Walker said.
Retrained employees “often understand and have experience in the business processes they are automating,” the GSA spokesperson said. “This removes the period of discovery that contractors often have to engage in to understand the process, identify the stakeholders and determine the best automation design. Another benefit of reskilling is that it provides our employees opportunities for career development.”
Other agencies that trained with UiPath include the Agriculture Department’s RPA cohort in New Orleans, where a class of 25 students completed an eight-week program, and the U.S. Postal Service, where reskilled employees built a bot that sped the ordering and delivery of postal uniforms.
GSA has 45 more automations in development or under evaluation and “has no plans to slow down,” the spokesperson said, adding that the agency is working with the Federal RPA Community of Practice to identify and develop automation for use governmentwide.
“We will continue to educate and train employees on the benefits of RPA and will increase our developer pools as needed,” the spokesperson said. “RPA has allowed us to change the focus of the whole organization by getting the OCFO and the rest of GSA to think about RPA as a critical tool in improving how federal employees do their jobs.”
Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.