Over 20 federal agencies are experimenting with robotic process automation, a technology that some estimate could save the federal government billions of dollars.
Folk hero John Henry won the race against the steam-powered drill, and though he died from exhaustion after the contest, the steel-drivin' man proved that, with enough determination, men can best machines.
In the late 1800s, anyway.
An employee at the Defense Information Systems Agency was not able to make the same claim when a computer came out on top in a recent man-against-machine competition.
DISA began piloting four robotic process automation applications in 2017 and went into full production with one bot just a few weeks ago, according to DISA Accounting Operations and Compliance Division Chief Barbara Crawford
“To commemorate that and to see what we were up against, we did a ‘Race the Bot’ event in the office,” Crawford said at an April 24 event hosted by UiPath, a company that develops RPA technology. The task was to pull supporting documentation for an audit request. “We gave our bot 15 minutes and we gave one of our better employees 15 minutes,” she said.
The employee was able to pull two items; the bot pulled 150. The results “spoke volumes,” Crawford said.
DISA’s first bot is being used to gather information and financial data required to present an “accurate and reliable” financial picture of the agency. This information is needed to support financial decisions and a current compliance audit. Moving the data-gathering responsibilities to the bot will allow the human workers to conduct more analytic analysis rather than data gathering, she said.
DISA is not the only federal agency that is interested in working with RPA. There are currently 21 federal agencies using the technology, according to figures presented at the event by Chris Huff, the public sector robotics leader at Deloitte Consulting.
UiPath, which already works with larger private companies like Walmart to implement RPA, moved into Washington-area offices at the beginning of 2018 to address the increasing adoption of RPA within government.
“I’ve never seen this kind of growth,” UiPath Vice President of U.S. Public Sector Jonathan Padgett said. “I’ve been working with technology in the public sector for 25 years, and I’ve never seen the inbound interest, the excitement, around a truly transformational technology. I can’t think of a sector that can better benefit from a new technology like RPA [more] than the public sector.”
It's easy to see why. A 2017 report from Deloitte’s Center for Government Insights estimated that RPA could save federal agencies $41.1 billion within five to seven years if there is significant investment in automation.
However, Forrester analyst Craig Le Clair said the deployment of RPA within government is not happening as quickly as UiPath says.
“Based on inquiries we receive, the public sector is middle of the pack compared to financial services,” Le Clair said in an email to GCN. The technology, financial services and insurance sectors have shown the most interest, according inquiries received by Forrester.
But there are some federal agencies leading the way. The United States Postal Service, for example, has taken RPA from the pilot phase to full implementation, and has even drawn up an org chart for a staff that will oversee the implementation of the technology.
In January, the USPS rolled out its first bot, which automates the process of supplying missing information on packages.
When a package is shipped into the U.S., weight information helps determine its shipping cost. If that weight information is missing, then USPS has to retrieve it from an international system that contains the weight tables for the packages.
“It’s a very mundane financial process,” USPS Vice President and Controller Maura McDevitt. said.
USPS already plans for a second bot within HR -- “probably within the next 30 days,” McDevitt said -- and a third bot within payroll, which will take another three months to complete.
UiPath describes two types RPA: attended and unattended. Attended RPA works on a desktop and assists a worker. The unattended bot runs with no human interaction.
Currently, DISA's attended bot is running on an employee's laptop, which is leveraging that worker's credentials to move around the network. But DISA has plans to get the bot its own credentials. USPS' unattended bot runs on a server and has no interaction with human workers.
The General Services Administration is also testing RPA, according to Jeff Lau, the acting regional commissioner for GSA's Federal Acquisition Service. In its tests, the speed difference between the bot and the human worker did not go unnoticed. In less than 10 seconds, the software was able to accomplish a task that took a human worker 15 minutes, Lau said.
When a bot takes over these mundane tasks, Lau said, it provides an opportunity for the employees to focus on things like industry engagement, customer engagement and training.
The USPS has eliminated positions as a result of implementing RPA, McDevitt told the crowd. But it is “not firing anyone.”
USPS, GSA and DISA plan to expand their use of RPA, according to the officials at the event. “We’re at a time in government where this technology can really create a huge impact,” Lau said.