Light at the end of the tunnel: Could automation be the answer to the public sector’s problems?

Tim Olsen, Intelligent Automation Director at Hays

The public sector faces challenges far beyond those experienced by the private sector. It operates within risk-averse frameworks that constantly drive down budgets and demand improved efficiencies, and many organisations work with legacy systems and inherent technical debt, both of which can require significant manual intervention to function.

The pandemic has caused unprecedented pressures on public services, and the funding deficit is expected to grow in parallel with the increased demand for social and health services. In short, public sector organisations find themselves in an unenviable catch-22 situation.

However, there may be a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. Robotic Process Automation (RPA) has the capability to deliver transformational automation at a very low cost, typically paying for itself within one year, making it a viable funding proposition.

What is RPA?

The ‘Robotic’ element of RPA is a bit of a misnomer; it refers to actions undertaken by the software that mimic those of an employee. There is no physical entity, purely an electronic one that resides in your computer (or in the Cloud). The software can click a mouse, read a web page, extract data, write to a database, use Excel and even read documents and emails. By using these skillsets, the ‘bots’ can learn processes and repeat them time and time again, very quickly. When you consider that bots don’t need holidays or to pause to eat lunch, and that they can work through the night - it’s clear to see how productivity can increase very rapidly when utilising this technology.

RPA does not need deep-level integration. It uses the same interface as humans (the user interface), meaning it can click, type, open files and more. Plus, it can interact with almost any application, even the ancient ones. Because it’s so compatible with existing software, and the infrastructure is minimal, it’s very quick to set up and therefore relatively cheap to deploy. In fact, most programmes see overall payback within 12 months, with some quick-win bots reaching that even within just one month.

While there’s no doubt that RPA drives value for money, it also brings other key benefits. Bots can dramatically reduce queues and waiting times, slashing how long it can take for benefit or housing applications to be processed, for example. They always follow the process to the letter, unlike humans – who can make accidental mistakes, so compliance and auditability is assured.

Bots, also known as the digital workforce, can be quickly cloned, and scaled to meet peaks in demand. Any cyclical process can therefore be smoothed over, and backlogs can be removed – think about how this could help with the education sector in regards to school admissions, school meals and bus passes, for example.

Are robots coming for my job?

Robots follow sets of instructions, but they aren’t so good at making decisions based on experience. Where activities are highly repetitive and follow a logical process, there may be an opportunity to automate them, but – in many cases – a process will involve some decision-making that will require a human. Often, an employee will work on multiple tasks and processes at the same time, rather than just one, and using a bot to take over some of the more repetitive jobs can aid productivity. It is best to think of the robot as removing the mundane and monotonous tasks from the humans to ‘liberate human intellect’. This adds value where they are most productive and gives hours back to the business. Automation should be undertaken consciously to ensure the net outcome is positive in its broadest sense – across society, this is most relevant in the public sector.

Where can RPA be applied?

RPA employs a highly adaptable set of skills and applications that can be widely applied across a range of generic tasks undertaken by all organisations. This could include processing joiners and leavers, procure to pay and password resets, for example, to processes that are more bespoke, which include but are not limited to the below examples.

Healthcare

  • Rescheduling cancelled appointments
  • COVID-19 response
  • Referral management
  • Transferring patient records
  • Allocation of beds
  • Digitisation of documents and handling
  • Discharge instructions

Housing

  • Collection of Direct Debits
  • Registration of landlords
  • Rent arrears
  • Repair management
  • Tenant onboarding

Local government

  • Housing-benefit applications
  • Free-school-meal applications
  • School applications
  • Rent-increase processing
  • Change-of-address management
  • Temporary event notices and licencing

Policing

  • Processing fixed-penalty notices
  • Crime reporting
  • Case-file assembly
  • Firearms licence processing

RPA can be used as a cheaper proxy for integration. Wherever there are multiple legacy systems that require users to interact with them to complete a process, there will be the re-entering of information and the swivelling of chairs. RPA can manage all these back-end activities quickly and without error. It can manage and cleanse data and populate databases and CRM systems.

By using complementary technologies such as Optical Character Recognition and Natural Language Processing, the capabilities of RPA are expanded further, allowing automation to ‘shift left’ by structuring data and digitising it at the outset of the interaction. Forms and emails can be read automatically and classified, and documents can be managed and assigned to appropriate processes.

How can I start automating?

The first step is to gain buy-in for automation and secure funding. For this, it is likely you will need to present evidence of the scale of the opportunity and build a business case to present to the key stakeholders. It will be necessary to survey departments within your organisation (as widely as possible) to identify, qualify and quantify the automation opportunity in the teams and processes you investigate. Each process must be analysed against a set of criteria including volume, average handling time, stability, steps, and screens to name just a few, the output of which is a matrix ranking by complexity and benefit. A business case can be created for the viable portfolio and extrapolated.

Assuming the investment is forthcoming, a platform/vendor must be selected, and skilled resources onboarded – then the first bots can be built, tested, and deployed.

The first bot is always the hardest to deploy, but it’s worth remembering that without the right structure and governance, scaling can also become increasingly difficult. It’s key to anticipate the need to scale the programme early and set expectations, being mindful to build the foundations then, at the implementation stage, rather than discovering it later when you may not have access to adequate funding. Automation demands commitment if it’s to be done successfully but, when executed well, you’ll soon reap the rewards that come with economies of scale.

Partnering with an experienced implementation team will pay dividends in the long run and could help you to secure a return on investment.

RPA won’t solve all the challenges the public sector is beset with, but it might just provide a low-cost alternative to other traditional transformation programmes. A quick payback makes it an easy option to secure funding for, and its successful deployments in the private sector so far have proven its value and eliminated most of the risk and any cynicism regarding effectiveness.

Now might just be the time to find that light at the end of the tunnel, and to switch it on.

Author

Tim Olsen
Intelligent Automation Director, Hays Technology

Tim worked in Project Management for 20 years developing solutions to improve user journeys and experience for blue chip clients. More recently he built the UK’s largest RPA CoE from scratch and went on to help organisations overcome their barriers to scaling automation. He is a thought leader and evangelist for Intelligent Automation.

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