‘Getting humans ready for the bots is a greater challenge than the bot itself’: how to use RPA in the public sector

By on 27/02/2024 | Updated on 27/02/2024

At a session at the AccelerateGov conference in Ottawa, public servants from Canada and beyond shared their insights and experience on how to deploy automation tools in the public sector.

Robotic Process Automation (RPA) can speed up service delivery while producing efficiency savings, and Kathleen Butler, director general, Digital Services Directorate, Assessment, Benefit, and Service Branch, Canada Revenue Agency, spoke in the session about how she had procured and deployed RPA in government.

“It’s not like just procuring a solution, it’s more like hiring a new hire,” she said, explaining that she had used a new employee checklist to help her deploy RPA in the organisation.

“We took the new employee checklist and we went through it item by item – I need to make sure it’s security cleared, I’m going to need credentials, I’m going to need a user ID, an audit trail, I need to introduce it to the team introduce it to the unions. That was really helpful.”

Butler highlighted a number of cases where she had deployed automated bots across her organisation, and calculated they had saved “roughly 100,000 hours of work that would have otherwise been required by humans”.

It’s been very beneficial, she said, but the biggest challenge was convincing people to relinquish control. “Getting the humans ready for the bots is a greater challenge than the bot itself.”

Elise Legendre, chief data officer at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, said she was on a similar journey at her own department. She shared insights on how  the team had deployed RPA, including in helping to triage customer service requests, and to help streamline the Government of Canada’s charitable campaigns.

It  has also been used in more core elements of departmental work such as helping with routine administration and form-filling tasks to free public servants to focus on “outlier cases”.

“I think that’s the key here,” she said. “It is not about robot versus human or robots, it’s really about bots and humans and how can we best use the bots to relieve some of the pressure on those of you that are in the Canadian public service.

“Our workforce is telling us they’re overwhelmed, they’re overworked, they feel burned out, so we can lift and we can lighten the burden on our employees using bots [for certain tasks]. It’s not about hiring new people, it’s about really focusing the people that we have on higher value tasks.”

Kyle Thomas, the global industry leader, Public Sector Regulatory Agencies, at Appian, spoke about how Appian can help government agencies automate processes all on one platform and set out details of a step-by-step process, from discovering inefficiencies to connecting data sources and optimising workflows.

Appian is a platform “on which you can build an automated solution to do anything,” Thomas said. “We’re your partner. We started in government and we remain focused in government.”

Amira Musse, director, strategy and innovation in Finance and Procurement Services, Natural Resources Canada discussed developing capacity in NRCan to use AI to detect areas of financial risk in the organisation. She advised delegates to ensure they have senior support for any RPA projects and to focus on clean data.

“Don’t even think about RPA and AI yet if you don’t have a business warehouse where you can connect to data directly. You have to have that connectivity to the data, and you have to transform managers into creators and enablers,” she said.

Barna Gaál, the head of the International Relations Office at Digital Hungary Office discussed the use of automation in the Hungarian government, where a central team has been created to oversee AI development in government and develop 10 pilot schemes.

He said these pilot cases had proved the usefulness of RPA in the Hungarian government, and public services are now able to deploy it where they judge it to be helpful.

To find out more, watch the Automation for the people: using RPA in public service session, supported by knowledge partner Appian in full on the Global Government Forum YouTube page. You can revisit AccelerateGov 2023 in full on the event website.

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