Q&A: Driving efficiencies with Digital Process Automation

An amended write-up of the Q&A from our recent Digital Process Automation (DPA) webinar, including answers to questions we didn’t have time to respond to. Answers are from our DPA Lead Tim Stephenson.

We’re already on this journey of digital transformation, what can DPA provide that’s unique or different?

Great — good if you’re already on the journey. You should keep that going! But sometimes we’re faced with clients that have made improvements on the surface only. So there are improvements to the user experience side – whether that be citizens or internal users – which is great of course! But DPA can augment that by streamlining what happens behind the user interface, providing end-to-end control of the system you’re delivering. Another example is RPA. RPA is useful at solving point tasks and very good at improving the speed and accuracy of repetitive items. But RPA on its own doesn’t tackle the whole end-to-end process. The DPA perspective is to see RPA as just one portion, solving individual tasks within a bigger end-to-end process. DPA will give you a holistic solution to your digital transformation journey embracing both better, user-centered interfaces and greater internal efficiency through automation.

On the other hand, maybe you haven’t embarked on digital transformation yet. I think it’s never too early to start but I recognise it can be daunting to start on this journey. To help ease those concerns, you should look for small places to gain confidence. Look for services that are self contained, something that can be delivered quickly. Gain confidence in process and iterate from there. Look at what a citizen can do, make sure more than one part of your organisation is involved (so we’re breaking down silos) and make sure it’s delivering something valuable.

We’re actually trying to simplify our IT estate, how does something like DPA support this?
The main thing about DPA is to provide an orchestration layer so that you can align your business to the technology underneath. And simplifying the estate will allow you to break up the useful parts into the tasks where they actually add value. And then you gradually replace or eliminate the tasks (or more specifically the task implementation technology)  as they reach their end of life. 

How does DPA fit into other technologies we’re already using?  

Well, of course, that depends on which other technologies you’re using! If you have a CRM type of system to manage your customers, then we might want to enable your front line staff to simplify the workflow by pulling the contact data out of the CRM into the process engine. I suspect that a lot of the tech will be at that Third Level I referred to earlier in my presentation. That’s exactly why we structured it this way. So each of the technologies can be used in the place it makes most sense, and DPA really provides an orchestration layer over the top. 

[To recap: Level 1 captures the end to end business process (aka value chain) for the business owner audience; activities of the front line staff at Level 2 and integration with other systems at Level 3. In this way, if a particular system providing a given piece of functionality is no longer cost effective or cannot flex to meet changing needs, the scope of the change is confined to just replacing that third level process].

How does emerging tech, such as AI and Machine Learning, fit in with DPA?

A crucial part of process thinking is to break down the activities you do into small tasks and separate them out. That’s a better approach than having one huge solution where everything is muddled together. As new technologies emerge, you can pick the best technologies for any given task. And replace that task with the new emerging tech. In this way, DPA gives you the best of every world because you’re using each technology in the area it’s best suited.

Is there not a danger we’re creating another legacy with this approach? Will we not just have to re-invent the wheel every time we need to do something new as we have before?

I think fundamentally DPA is almost the inverse of creating a legacy. What we’re talking about is looking at your value chains, your services, the things you need to get done. And looking at them from the users’ perspective — be they citizens or internal users. So you’re not building a legacy; you’re building an understanding of how you’re delivering these valuable services. When it comes to implementation, because we’re breaking up the total service into small parts, this approach allows you to replace (when they age over time) those parts individually rather than having to tackle an all-encompassing monolithic legacy beast. 

With this approach, you’re not re-inventing the wheel every time you do something new. This method is highly repeatable and adaptable. We know all councils are different and special when it comes to catering for their unique demographic. But processing data and providing the services citizens need is the same in all councils. So councils don’t need a bespoke software solution every time for every process. As the local digital declaration stated, councils should develop digital services that can be repeated, reused or adapted by themselves and other councils. And the DPA approach allows you to do that.

When we’ve got ballooning demand in the most expensive areas of council services; adult social care and children’s services etc. and we’re struggling to balance our budgets, how can we justify making major investments in potential cost-saving infrastructure?

It’s about improving your backend service to citizens. Yes, citizens might use different channels to access your service in the frontend. But if you take away some of the blockers in the backend and streamline processes, you’ll process things faster, reduce duplication and errors. That will lead to cost savings and, most importantly, improve the service you provide citizens. 

For example, if a citizen calls repeatedly about an issue — maybe they’re anxious or an elderly person suffering with memory loss — visibility of that to the front line staff fielding the call is critical. Ideally in real time. If we’re using manual methods things can get lost, logged incorrectly or take more time.  That’s the risk when you put another note on a colleague’s desk or fill in a spreadsheet — it creates additional work and does not reassure the citizen one bit. Digitising and automating the process means you no longer have those problems but also you have a record of action — an audit trail that can inform decision making. 

If I want to use this solution for a different scenario how easy is it to implement, how would you engage?

What’s been described in the webinar is applicable to a lot of services local government provides. We engage by running a discovery session — sitting down for a day with a number of stakeholders in your organisation, picking particular scenarios. In the webinar, we picked housing, but it could be parking, could be waste – it could be anything really. During that discovery session, we drill down into your processes and see how processes engineering might work. And then, if all went well, we’ll take that forward to a proof of concept. But we’re happy to have introductory discussions about how we can address your particular situation as well. 

How do you integrate into identity management tools? Can you plug into our citizen management log in for example?

So identity management is a component of any DPA solution. If you haven’t made a choice we would recommend Keycloak, which is very sophisticated and secure. We have lots of experience implementing that. The choice is yours though and there are various pluggable points where we can integrate your ID system. The systems people use include corporate directory and once again that can be easily integrated.  

What’s the role of Business Process Modelling (BPM) in DPA?

BPM came out of the old workflow and enterprise integration world; pulling together human and system task into one thing. BPM is now very mature, we know lots about it; the methodology and the tools. DPA is pushing that to next level and focussing on digital transformation of organisations – in our context looking at citizen enablement and dramatically reducing the cost of delivering services. At the same time, it’s introducing automation and giving that a more prominent place versus BPM. Really, DPA is an evolution of BPM.

Who is using this DPA solution today?

Process platforms have traditionally been the preserve of large organisations; organistions with separate people acting in roles of product owner, business analyst, developer etc. Think highly-regulated environments such as merchant banks; telcos and healthcare. The latest generation of tools takes advantage of the mobile and cloud revolutions to place these tools in the hands of far more organisations. 

At Zaizi, we’ve worked with a number of central and local government organisations in a range of different ways. We’ve done the straight-forward people co-ordination — what I often refer to as command-and-control —that ensures no work falls down the back of the metaphorical desk never to be seen again. We’ve paired civil servant data publication processes with document management systems to break down siloed working practices and create visible efficiency improvements and measurable ROI. We’ve also done the high volume, highly distributed systems that need to be auditable and non-repudiable. Our innovation team is even looking at how AI and machine learning models can be incorporated. 

Watch our Local Government webinar

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