While interest in robotics is growing, RPA needs some ‘home runs’

"I think we need a number of home runs” to get robotic process automation to take, said one government expert.
(Victory of the People/Flickr)

If the federal government’s adoption of robotic process automation were dating, we’d be at the flirting stage.

A mutual interest has been established and there’s a lot of enthusiasm, but agency leaders may not be ready yet to fully declare their love for the technology.

And it’s not necessarily RPA’s fault, said Edward Burrows, the RPA program manager at the General Services Administration — it’s just more of a challenge for federal agencies to adopt the potentially game-changing technology on a large scale without having laid some foundations for it first.

“I don’t think the government is quite there yet in terms of readiness to invest,” he said Wednesday at the ACT-IAC Artificial Intelligence and Intelligent Automation Forum. “Many agencies are at the pilot phase. I think we need a number of home runs.”


GSA is one of multiple agencies that have seen the potential RPA can bring to making operations more efficient. The technology has been growing in popularity for its ability to tackle labor-intensive processes in a fraction of the time it would take a human; and it’s shown some promise through a series of pilot programs at GSA, the Treasury Department’s Bureau of the Fiscal Service and others

The theory is that by allowing RPA to take on repetitive tasks, like data processing, federal employees can focus on higher-value tasks.

The technology has become an integral piece of the Office of Management and Budget’s plan to help reform the federal workforce, but Burrows said to increase buy-in from federal executives and employees, RPA needs some demonstrative wins.

“The highest one so far is one process that would eliminate 7,000 hours per month,” he said. “The reason for that is it’s data entry and everybody around the country is doing it exactly the same way. As soon as agencies start automating processes like that with that kind of benefit — because with processes like that, your [return on investment] shoots up — I think then we’ll see it more.”

For now, though, Burrows said, “I think it’s too new.”


That being said, excitement is building for RPA’s potential to make work easier. GSA has stood up 10 automated bots and has a goal of hitting 25 this fiscal year. Burrows said the grassroots support for the technology is potent and spreads quickly, making it popular among the employees who have seen it in action.

“It just sweeps across the organization almost to the point where, if people are doing something manual, they feel kind of embarrassed,” he said. “Because one of their friends might say, ‘why don’t you get a bot for that?’ So that change in mindset is really powerful.”

The challenge is scaling the technology up enterprisewide. While adoption is relatively easy and its potential uses bountiful, RPA requires that agency leaders figure out how to utilize the workers who have been freed up by the technology.

That means rather than trying to blanket an organization with RPA, agency leaders will have to see where it might best be applied and strategize from there.

“Before you deploy that automation, you already need a plan of how those people will be redeployed,” he said. “You already have to have a training plan in place. So, you have to look at it case-by-case, and the ones that are going to have an impact, those are the ones you plan for.”

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