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RPA for government: dynamite or kryptonite?

By Tim Stephenson - 27th September 2019

The opportunity for any organisation to automate high volume, repetitive tasks is one which is full of allure. When you’re a government department or agency whose core business is built around people-heavy processes it’s even more attractive.
 
Along with the potential for cost savings and error reduction is the bigger goal of making swathes of routine operations digital and of course, better serving citizens.


WATCH WEBINAR: RPA or DPA? Taking a strategic route to automation 

The new machinery of government

With these benefits, and the likes of Deloitte hailing it as “the new machinery of government”, it is little wonder that Robotic Process Automation (RPA) has captured headlines and column inches over the past year.
 
It’s also unsurprising that awareness of RPA has burst out of the tech sphere with product owners, business analysts and digital leads across the public sector keen to see how it can help them further down the path to digital government.

But for all its promise, RPA is still a not a mature technology. High expectations about what it can deliver have yet to be matched by the realty of those who use. This places is firmly in the “trough of disillusionment” in Gartner’s technology hype cycle.
 
As such, the main danger, for any public sector buyer looking at RPA is the risk of buying into a new technology which may not come up with the goods.

The digital benefits of RPA

The best way of understanding what RPA can deliver is, of course, to ask people who are already using the technology in the public sector.
 
Which is why for our webinar we brought together two people from two government departments – the DWP and HMRC – to find out more about their experience and to understand where RPA sits in the wider context of delivering digital government. So, what were the take-aways?
 
First the positives. If you are a government department that wants to make inroads into the numerous but critical high-volume tasks which are the beating operational heart of an organisation like the HMRC, then RPA can certainly make a difference.
 
It can do so at pace and it can deliver the kind of efficiency and resource gains that are outlined by its advocates.
 
RPA helps organisations in another important way. It allows them to focus their people on the points of workflow that require high-empathy points or where there is complexity. For example, in case management, which needs value judgements or interaction with other people: citizens, colleagues or managers.
 
By allowing computers to do the things they are good at and for people to focus on the areas which are most satisfying the overall gain for the organisation is better results for citizens and better productivity.

Automation or transformation

There are, of course, limits to what RPA can deliver. Our webinar guest Rachel Parks-Szymborska has deployed RPA in the DWP and she points out that while it can help make processes or parts of an organisation digital, it isn’t fully transformative.
 
This means that organisations deploying RPA for narrow tactical gains are at risk of applying sticking plasters to something which requires major surgery and the preparation that goes with that.
 
Another issue to consider is that speed of implementation can be a double-edged sword. Moving quickly is only good if you are travelling in the right direction. So again, the need to look at the big picture is critical.

Digital Process Automation

At Zaizi we are big advocates of automation. But our view is that there is no point in optimising workflow, processes and tasks unless it is aligned to the bigger picture of making the whole organisation more effective.
 
The worry is that in the rush to RPA, this is not being done. Instead of focusing first on goals, people are looking at processes without necessarily understanding whether once automated they will end up where they want to be.
 
The challenge, then, is to make sure RPA – and any other technology - is adopted in the right way, with a mindset of transformation.
 
That means looking across your organisation at the workflows now, describing how it should work, mapping out goals, breaking them into chunks for automation.
 
This solution may involve RPA, it may be AI and it will certainly still involve people – perhaps all three.
 
Once you look at your organisation and its goals holistically your digital process automation journey will truly be underway. 

About the author: Tim Stephenson
Tim Stephenson is our DPA Practice Lead. With over 15 years' experience, Tim's area of expertise is business process management and digital transformation. He has architected many million pound plus software development projects and his expertise is called upon regularly at industry events.