2020 Government Innovation Awards
NASA’s bot crew streamlines manual processes
Thanks to robotic process automation, the NASA Shared Services Center now has 72 bots that are helping the agency reduce labor costs and enhance work quality by eliminating error-prone manual processes.
One of the first RPA applications the center put in place streamlined the way data goes from emails to other systems. Because NSCC is responsible for managing NASA’s grants program, it gets an average of 100 emails a day from grant recipients submitting their progress reports. Those emails are often encrypted to protect sensitive information, so a senior employee must find an encryption key for each, unencrypt the information and copy it over to another system.
“They literally have to open the email, put it into a system called Kofax, which turns it into a PDF and then copy it over into our archive system,” said Brian Reid, business process manager at General Dynamics Information Technology, which collaborated with NSSC to create the Intelligent Automation Services Group. “That was someone’s job for two or three hours a day,” he said. Now that work gets done at night, saving 10 to 15 work hours per week.
The group built that bot in just six weeks, said Pamela Wolfe, chief of NSSC’s Enterprise Services Division. “We’ve been able to use [RPA] for a lot of various use cases, and we’ve been able to share those with other federal agencies just to generate ideas for automation.”
While the individual bots can be impressive in their own right, RPA is now common across government. What's truly innovative is how the space agency and operationalized RPS development and deployment. NASA entities submit ideas for automation to NSSC. The group maps a value stream that outlines the steps of the current process, how long it takes and the systems it accesses to determine how much effort a developer would have to put into building a bot. Then, the group comes up with a return on investment for the idea. If automation would be helpful and reasonable, the job gets added to the group’s queue.
“What we are finding in the automations that we are doing is that they are pieces of processes,” Wolfe said. “We feel that there are opportunities potentially to automate on a grander scale – maybe a process end to end,” she said. “Also, we’re looking at what are processes that would benefit users at all centers.”
NSSC has been developing bots since April 2018 and moved to agencywide service this year, using a federated model with a virtual infrastructure and qualified service providers to handle development.
Currently, NASA has automations in place across all functional areas, including finance, human resources, procurement, budgeting and accounting. “If it’s manual, if you can build business rules around it, there’s probably an area that RPA should be able to at least help,” Reid said.
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