Transforming routine work: the rise of the robots

By on 05/06/2018
Robotics can enable civil service business owners to pass mundane administrative tasks from people to technologies, cutting costs and speeding up processes

Digitally transforming a service can bring huge rewards – but replacing a legacy system is often complex and risky. So many governments are introducing Robotic Process Automation, stripping the routine tasks out of existing systems. James Johns explores the benefits and compromises involved in this branch of digital technology

With today’s fast-evolving digital technologies, we have the ability to fundamentally rethink how processes operate and services are delivered across broad swathes of government work. But as many a reform-minded civil servant and minister has found, the biggest problem is not how to conceive a better way of operating; it is how to get there from here.

Over the years, governments have gradually built up complex networks of interconnected IT systems. So unless the new policy involves a wholly-new function, any change demands reforms to the myriad of legacy organisations, processes and systems underpinning existing operations – presenting reformers with a daunting set of programme management, staff engagement and organisational collaboration tasks. And although legacy systems have received a bad press, the reality is that many are reliable, well-optimised to the task in hand, run by expert officials, and capable of incremental development: shifting to a brand new system whilst maintaining public services is a risky business. Digital transformation offers many benefits in terms of customer service, cost savings and flexibility, but these outcomes are rarely easily won.

Nonetheless, over time we can expect to see governments bite the bullet and shift from traditional IT platforms to new digital services. Yet these risks and obstacles are slowing the process of change; and meanwhile, many government organisations are turning to Robotic Process Automation (RPA) to strip cost and time out of existing business processes.

The march of the robots

Despite its name, RPA does not involve replacing civil servants with rows of shiny metallic androids; instead, it means using off-the-shelf software to streamline a business process by automatically driving legacy IT systems – taking on elements of mundane, routine work. These tasks can include opening emails and attachments and extracting information; carrying out calculations; performing transformations or look-ups based on the data they contain; logging into existing software systems; applying simple rules; copying information between applications; completing forms; creating new files or folders; and recording management information. And these capabilities leave RPA well placed to operate in public service roles such as processing claims for welfare benefits or other eligibility-based services, performing tax calculations, handling permit or licence applications, and producing discharge notifications in a healthcare setting. RPA also offers potential benefits in back office functions such as HR, finance and IT support.

Typically, the implementation of RPA software is undertaken in a ‘code-free’ way, by specifying the process to be followed and associated rules; or through ‘training’ the package by having it observe a human operator execute the process over a sufficient number of cases that it can successfully mimic their actions. RPA implementations therefore require little or no software development, and can be implemented in as short a period as two or three months, leading to rapid realisation of benefits. And those benefits can be impressive: consulting firm Accenture estimates that successful RPA implementations can result in “a 40 to 80 percent reduction in processing costs and up to an 80 percent reduction in processing time”.

Like the industrial robots which have transformed complex manufacturing, the software robots used in RPA offer a number of advantages over human workers when carrying out repetitive tasks. They operate without process errors, at computer speed, can work without breaks 24 hours a day, and occupy no real estate; they exist virtually inside a data centre or the cloud. The Professor of Work, Technology and Globalisation in the Department of Management at the London School of Economics, Leslie Willcocks, has conducted research which suggests a potential return on investment for RPA implementations of between 30% and 200% in the first year. And analysts at Transparency Market Research have predicted that the market for RPA software will rise at a 47% compound annual growth rate annually through to 2024.

A tweak, not a transformation

It’s important to distinguish here between RPA and Artificial Intelligence: this latter technology involves the automation of decisions, rather than simply the performance of formulaic tasks to a predetermined set of protocols. When IT systems are asked to make judgements on how to handle a process – as delegates discussed at the recent Global Government Summit – there is the risk of inadvertent bias and a lack of accountability, bringing a new set of risks and complexities. But defined narrowly as the automation of simple, routine processes in existing legacy systems, RPA largely sidesteps these issues; and given the potential benefits and the relative ease with which they can be realised, the technology is very appealing to civil service business managers.

In part, this appeal is rooted in the opportunity to avoid the need to re-engineer legacy systems and the risks involved in transformational change projects, instead, business managers can use RPA to operate existing processes more quickly, cheaply and efficiently. But for this very reason, some critics consider RPA implementations an unhelpful distraction from pure digital programmes: a sticking plaster over outdated processes and software. RPA systems can even become an additional barrier to change, representing an additional investment in legacy systems and adding a new set of tasks to any more fundamental change programme.

RPA in action

Nevertheless, RPA is very much one of the in-vogue technologies at present, and there are many successful case studies of its introduction in public sector organisations around the world. In the UK, these include the National Health Service in Wales, North Tyneside Council and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. Last year the Cabinet Office ran a procurement to establish an RPA Centre of Excellence, promoting the use of the technology more widely across government; French outsourcer Capgemini was selected as the external partner for the work.

In Europe Palkeet, the Finnish government’s shared services centre for finance and HR, anticipates using RPA to halve the repetitive manual labour associated with some of its processes by the end of this year – a move mirrored by the Australian Department of Finance’s analogous Service Delivery Office, which advertised for an RPA partner late last year following a successful pilot implementation. And in Singapore, the Maritime and Port Authority is working with an RPA vendor to automate data entry, extraction and validation for the shipping sector.

Whilst RPA might offend the digital purists, few organisations can afford to let the goal of a perfect but theoretical digital transformation become the enemy of a good and easily realisable RPA solution. And whilst the introduction of RPA systems generally facilitates a reduction in civil service head count, it also concentrates civil service jobs on the more fulfilling and interesting tasks that only humans can perform.

In a speech at the London School of Economics earlier this year, the UK civil service’s chief executive, John Manzoni, said: “For civil servants, too, process automation is something to embrace rather than fear. It’ll create more time to spend on customer-facing work; enhancing jobs by making it easier to navigate and work with data.” If these goals can be achieved, that’s quite a legacy. For now at least, it appears that our robot friends are here to stay.

About James Johns

James Johns is a consultant, strategist and digital policy advisor with more than 28 years' experience helping government organisations to make more effective use of technology. He began his career in the National Health Service and the IT services company Xansa, before spending fifteen years in a range of roles at Hewlett Packard. From 2007 to 2014 he was Director of Strategy for the firm's UK public sector business and more recently was HP's Director of Corporate Affairs for the UK & Ireland. James is a Visiting Senior Research Fellow in the Policy Institute at King's College London and an advisor to the World Economic Forum's National Digital Policy Network.

One Comment

  1. Oliver Harris

    01/11/2018 at

    Thanks James for the article, which is very to the point and touches upon the most relevant RPA-related facts!

    I particularly liked your bottom line – “whilst the introduction of RPA systems generally facilitates a reduction in civil service head count, it also concentrates civil service jobs on the more fulfilling and interesting tasks that only humans can perform.” We at CiGen, an Australian RPA pure-specialist, are also investing effort into emphasising the humanistic touch that the implementation of software robots brings about, and, relatedly, debunking the mythology of “robots will steal our jobs” (https://www.cigen.com.au/cigenblog/5-reasons-robotic-process-automation-your-competitive-advantage).

    Giving employees the opportunity to engage in more valuable jobs, besides inherently upgrading the overall functionality of civil service, is also likely to improve their level of job satisfaction. So all in all, making people really matter is a key feature of robotic process automation, particularly relevant in government work.

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