How Government CIOs Can Realize the True Potential of Robotic Process Automation

February 16, 2022

Contributor: Robert Snow

Many government CIOs over- or underestimate the potential of robotic process automation (RPA). These strategies improve the chances of success.

In short:

  • The hype around robotic process automation (RPA) can result in government CIOs understating its potential or overpromising its benefits.
  • Common pitfalls include underestimating the total cost of ownership of RPA-based solutions and neglecting alternative and effective automation tools.
  • To realize the true promise of RPA, adopt a structured approach to automation, establish a shared center of excellence to manage automation as a whole (not just as RPA) and pilot simple use cases with a clear return on investment to demonstrate value.

The popularity and use of robotic process automation (RPA) is expanding across governments around the world. Used more and more to perform mundane manual tasks, remove keying errors and reduce processing times, RPA ultimately frees up staff to focus on activities of higher value. 

Gartner expects that by 2024, 75% of governments will have at least three hyperautomation initiatives launched or underway, and RPA is a critical part of the modernization journey. You can help smooth the way by preemptively addressing potential blind spots in strategy. 

“Government business leaders tend to overhype or misunderstand the role of robotic process automation and end up underestimating the total cost of ownership (TCO) of RPA-based solutions,” says Dean Lacheca, Senior Director Analyst at Gartner. “There’s also a tendency to focus too narrowly on RPA rather than the wider topic of hyperautomation, which results in government communities of practice (COPs) and centers of excellence (COEs) not fully examining the automation tools and approaches needed for an effective hyperautomation strategy.”

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Deploying RPA in digital government

Robotic process automation offers government organizations from all tiers and segments opportunities to streamline administration and optimize government processes. The ROI ranges from improved citizen experience to improved data quality — and the freeing up of the workforce to focus on more value-added activities.

Robotic Process Automation Opportunities Across Government

Three ways to realize the true potential of RPA in government:

In the 2021 Gartner Digital Transformation Divergence Across Government Sectors Survey, 19% of government respondents said are already using RPA, with a further 33% indicating they intend to deploy RPA in the next two years. RPA’s popularity stems mostly from the operational efficiencies delivered, its ability to deliver benefits quickly and its use in automating legacy system processes.

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To balance and quantify the “speed to value” benefits against total cost of ownership, improve your chances of success with the following three strategies.

1. Adopt a structured approach to automation that reviews processes and identifies a roadmap

The low cost of entry makes a business case for implementing RPA relatively obvious, but the total cost of ownership often becomes a challenge, especially for CIOs using RPA as a means to extend the life of legacy applications.

While RPA may look at first like a quick fix for an underlying problem, core legacy risks and technical debt remain. To better address this issue, take a structured approach, treating RPA as part of a larger suite of tools that augment or automate processes. Make clear whether RPA is being used as a productivity tool or an interim step on a longer modernization initiative — which also helps to manage stakeholders’ expectations. 

2. Establish a shared automation COE that includes RPA 

Government agencies increasingly use COPs and COEs to ensure the full realization of the benefits of automation tools such as RPA. As supported processes become increasingly complex, COEs and COPs help establish new controls that ensure the appropriate security, management and orchestration for automation solutions.

Automation solutions are not one-size-fits-all, and while there is always pressure to deliver better ROI, it’s never a good idea to simply scale the volume of scripts or bots as each one has its own maintenance and utilization costs. Even where an infrastructure is in place under an existing license, there may be limited skilled resources available to maximize ROI.

3. Pilot RPA on straightforward tasks with a clear ROI

Hype around RPA creates the false perception — especially among non-IT people — that it’s a simple way to deliver process efficiency targets. This distracts from the reality of how RPA is best used and what its benefits really are.

The proven benefits of government process automation and augmentation include increased efficiency, which helps to free the workforce to take on more productive work, fewer errors (and, as a result, increased data quality), and an improved citizen experience through faster processing time and reduced double handling.

A big part of your role in RPA is to demystify and position it correctly with government decision makers. Aim to identify specific RPA use cases that are not overly complex, possess structured data and have simple processing paths. 

Such use cases help you engender a better understanding of RPA tools and demonstrate some early benefits to the business. Also, these use cases will be an important part of a realistic change management process, and they can be an effective tool to gain support and manage expectations.

Take inspiration from RPA in action

With the growing popularity of RPA, examples abound of its tangible benefits to government organizations. A U.S. State of Federal RPA Report from November 2020 noted that preliminary results from the 23 programs assessed showed “the annualized hours saved by automations deployed increased from 285,651 to 848,336, a 195% increase.” The December 2021 report said the “federal RPA community has reduced over 1.4 million hours (and counting) of low-value work across the [U.S.] government to date.”

Regardless of mission or purpose, internal functions like finance, procurement, payroll and HR can all benefit from RPA’s ability to optimize tasks and processes. Scale will be the factor that influences the value of the benefits, but larger departments or organizations with significant procurement will reap most value.


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