Automated for the people: putting robots to work

By on 12/03/2019
(From Left to Right) Chair Matt Ross with Rannia Leontaridi, Dmitri Jegorov and Marcelle von Wendland

Robotic Process Automation technologies can take on swathes of routine, repetitive administrative work. But good delivery is key: at Innovation 2019, an expert panel picked out some of the lessons they’ve learned whilst implementing RPA systems

Governments can see before them the mountains they need to climb to transform public  services: truly digital reforms demand wholesale changes to business processes, citizen interfaces and working methods. Scaling those peaks will involve some serious ascents.

But in the mountains’ foothills lie some handy tarmac trails, winding along valley floors: they may not help travellers climb towards the distant ridges, but they can ease the journey towards base camp. And one increasingly-popular trail leads via Robotic Process Automation (RPA): the use of software to automate the inputs and outputs of existing, legacy IT systems by, for example, pulling data out of incoming email attachments and populating relevant fields in the main system. The technology can increase processing speeds and reduce errors, whilst radically cutting the amount of mundane administrative work undertaken by civil servants.

At a session focusing on the topic at Innovation 2019 – Global Government Forum’s international conference, held in London at the end of February – an expert panel considered RPA’s applications, capabilities and implementation. And for Dmitri Jegorov, deputy secretary-general for tax and customs policy within Estonia’s Ministry of Finance, one key question for officials is: are you asking the right question?

Replace or redesign?

“It is a trend in many tax administrations around the world that you just automate paper processes instead of trying to think whether you need that process at all,” he commented. “Every time you start think about automating something, you have to think whether you need that process or could abolish it.”

Paul Loke, director of technology & chief information officer in Singapore’s Accountant General’s Department

So civil servants considering using RPA should first decide whether they could do without the activity entirely – perhaps by amending the core system or accessing other data sources. “Before you go to process automation, maybe go to process abolition,” Jegorov added. “You have to think of that first.”


Indeed, the key critique of RPA is that it can encourage officials to smooth the pathways into and out of existing IT rather than engaging in true digital transformation – with the result that they sink further funds into outdated legacy systems, pushing essential changes down the road.

Buying time

Used in the right way, though, RPA can provide a breathing space for governments to consider the bigger transformational questions – according to Paul Loke, director of technology & chief information officer in Singapore’s Accountant General’s Department.

Loke described the success of a recent “process inventory” exercise carried out by his officials, which resulted in significant changes in the department’s business architecture. “I think you will be quite surprised when you look at your entire business and enterprise architecture that there are lots of processes that people do that are basically undocumented,” he says. “I use the RPA as a stopgap to allow space to review inefficiency. At some level you will find some of the processes are dead or legacy processes.”

For Rannia Leontaridi, director of AI & business growth within the UK’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the key is to ensure that RPA technologies make life easier for service users as well as providers. “We are not creating an RPA for the sake of it. We can get caught up with the excitement of creating these things, but the thing we keep at the back of our mind is: what does the user want?” she said. “If you keep that in mind, nine out of 10 times the place you start is not where you end.”

Marcelle von Wendland, consultant at Finworks

Build around users

Jegorov wholeheartedly agreed. “Business process reengineering is very important when you focus on customers, instead of your own arrangements,” he said. “Your business and organisational arrangements are perfect when the processes are focused on the customer. Not your structure; not on your own people; not on your resources – but on the customer.”

To work out exactly how to focus those processes on the customer, suggested Finworks consultant Marcelle von Wendland, it’s worth carrying out “test bedding” exercises – involving users in trying out individual online processes before they’re bundled up into the full system. “We have to treat the citizens as innovators as well,” said von Wendland, recalling one recent project in which “the actual constituents were engaged voluntarily in shaping what the picture should look like. Once that was done, there was a consensus there that made the consultation [on the proposed solution] almost seem like a rubber stamping.”

James Merrick-Potter, head of robotic automation in the UK’s Cabinet Office

Best of both worlds

Finally, to get the RPA tech operating well, it’s essential to forge genuine partnerships between the digital staff and the business owners responsible for service delivery. James Merrick-Potter, head of robotic automation in the UK’s Cabinet Office, pointed out that “it can’t just be owned by just the business and enabled by digital, or vice versa. It has to be a combination of those two things.”

Moreover, he noted that transformation – whether incremental or fundamental – is a process, not an event. “You need to think of it as a live process, and be continually training it and refining it,” he said. “Too often, we fall into the trap of thinking ‘job done’, pat ourselves on the back, and move on to the next thing.

“Given the way the technology is developing so quickly, we should be much more innovative and aggressive in the way we change these things. They should be live for a few months and then changing, almost every day.”

Innovation 2019 was organised by Global Government Forum in association with the UK Cabinet Office and held in Westminster on 28 February, attracting 500 civil servants from over 30 countries. Previous articles have covered a live interview with UK civil service chief executive John Manzoni, and sessions on innovation in policymaking, procurement and fraud, error and debt. More coverage will follow in the coming days. 

About Colin Marrs

Colin Marrs is a journalist specialising in local and national government, as well as architecture and the built environment. Colin previously worked as digital content editor at Campaign, the advertising industry "bible".

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