Taking on the tedious: automation in government

By on 15/11/2021 | Updated on 15/11/2021
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Robotic Process Automation is too often seen as a threat to jobs – but in truth it makes people’s working lives more interesting and fulfilling, the audience heard at a recent webinar. To realise those benefits, however, civil servants must understand how best to deploy this emerging technology

As the UK prepared to leave the EU, the country’s Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) had to rapidly find a way to transfer 3,800 marketing authorisations to EU states – or see it become impossible to sell UK pharmaceuticals across the Continent.

Each transfer was a simple process, requiring a few minutes of repetitive admin work for a civil servant. But doing the job thousands of times was “more than any individual could possibly manage while maintaining quality,” Dimple Davdra, a change control officer at the MHRA, told a webinar audience in September.

Dimple Davdra,
Change Control Officer, Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), UK

Enter robotic process automation, or RPA: an increasingly common technique for managing routine tasks in government. After just four days of coding and ​​testing, Davdra was able to deploy a piece of software that perfectly replicated the human actions required to transfer a marketing authorisation. The applications were processed promptly, and the medicines’ supply lines remained uninterrupted.

As an austerity-pinched civil service is asked to deliver ever more with less resources, some expect RPA to spread rapidly across government – replacing human workers. Davdra’s experience, however, tells us something more complex: that RPA works best in concert with skilled civil servants, freeing those workers to focus on higher value tasks rather than replacing them.

Incremental improvements

The four day roll-out of an RPA to meet a Brexit deadline was not a miraculous technological intervention, but the result of years of collaboration between the MHRA and its partner Blue Prism, a Warrington-based software consultancy. Hosting a webinar in September, staff from the two organisations reflected on their experiences.

Blue Prism was originally contracted to help automate the process by which applications to sell drugs or begin clinical trials were uploaded into the MHRA’s database for consideration. When the project began in 2016, civil servants wanted to automate th​​e application process as it was. But the system contained many different application methods and a variety of paper forms, which could not be machine-read. Only over time, and after a dashboard was built to visualise this highly customised process, did MHRA and Blue Prism agree to introduce changes to the existing process to make it simpler to automate.

Aidan Hardy,
Transition Team Delivery Manager, Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA)UK

The results were exceptional. The RPA pushes applications into the MHRA database three times faster than a human and, of course, does not have to stop at night or take holidays. This leaves civil servants free to focus on examining the applications and considering their merits, rather than performing data entry tasks as they had previously.

Applications are now processed more quickly “because we’ve reduced the upfront data entry,” commented Aidan Hardy, a delivery manager at MHRA. “And the scientific experts are now much more engaged with the data itself.”

Setting out the lessons of their experiences, panellists emphasised the need for civil servants introducing RPA to spend time on a ‘discovery’ phase – reviewing their current working practices and looking for helpful reforms. Outcomes to be achieved should be defined in their own terms – deciding an application within a timeframe, for example – rather than with reference to the existing proc​​ess.

At MHRA, that meant first creating electronic versions of several forms so that paperwork could be stripped out and data collection fully automated. It also meant choosing what to leave out.

“Automation requires processes that are consistent. It can’t adapt like human workers,” noted Davdra. “Before starting any automation, it’s important to be realistic about how much can be simplified.”

Overcoming resistance

Philip Sheen, head of public sector for the UK and Ireland at Blue Prism, noted that robotic process automation is often seen as a threat within organisations – something that will ultimately lead to job losses as people are substituted by more efficient machines.

Philip Sheen,
Head of Public Sector UK&I, Blue Prism

Instead, he said, automation should be seen as “an enhancement to your existing workforce, not a replacement.” The technology frees workers to concentrate on higher value tasks and direct contact with service us​​ers, he added.

He gave the example of the North Essex NHS Foundation Trust hospital in Colchester, which turned to RPA when it merg​​ed with another nearby hospital and had to combine administrative processes. While the fear was of massive job losses, several years later the combined entity employs more staff than the two original hospitals, he said – in part because of the superior service staff are able to deliver when spared tedious and monotonous tasks.

A fascinating part of the webinar came when James Mitchell, the global senior vice president for people at Blue Prism, explained how he’d encountered resistance to automation even within his own organisation.

“Wh​​en I arrived in November 2019, I walked into an automation company and I thought: ‘Hang on a minute, where’s my automation? How can it be that we are talking about automation and the new world of work, but when it com​​es to managing our own people, we’re not doing it?” he recalled.

James Mitchell,
Global SVP People, Blue Prism

Mitchell described a two-year process, accelerated by the pandemic, to introduce automation into the way staff are recruited and onboarded – ensuring that new starters at Blue Prism can get working straight away, without undertaking a series of onerous processes.

Just as in the MHRA, he recalled, the temptation at first was to use technology to accelerate existing processes, rather than rethinking those processes from the ground-up and focusing on the desired outcomes. This mindset change is tough to achieve for both government organisations and technology start-ups, Mitchell argued. “The level of creativity that’s required to think differently about the way that you do work is not easy to find in any organisation.”

Breaking silos so users don’t have to

One of the knottiest complexities facing automation in government is the siloed nature of departments and the mismatches between their incompatible technology systems.

Sheen, Blue Prism’s head of public sector, illustrated very clearly how a lack of coordination across government leaves service users to bridge those gaps. As the carer of an elderly person with both Parkinson’s and dementia, he explained, he has to help coordinate services from 19 different agencies.

He described a system h​​e’s built to ensure that each time one of these agencies gets in touch, the family is automatically reminded to inform other government agencies that need to know – telling a social worker of changes in m​​edication, for example.

When we see users creating their own automations to alert one government agency to action by another in this way, it is a clear sign of the need to deliver further automation across boundaries within government itself.

The webinar ‘Automatic for the people: using intelligent automation to ease contact with service users’ was hosted by Blue Prism on 30 September, with the support of Global Government Forum. You can watch the 75-minute webinar by filling in the form below

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