Software Robots in Public Administration

The use of software robots to handle routine tasks is no longer a vision of the future. Their use even in public administration is possible, provided that the legal requirements are observed. Robots work fast, autonomously, and error-free and could fill the gaps in government offices created by the growing shortage of personnel.

Many of the duties and responsibilities that fall within the scope of public administration revolve around document-based processing. Employees often have a high level of professional expertise in their respective specialist areas and perform important executive functions of the government at their knowledge workplaces. On the other hand, the scope of activities often includes plenty of repetitive tasks such as responding to standard questions that arise over and over again, the completing of forms, or the manual entry of data into IT systems.

These manual routine tasks tie up resources that are urgently needed for the performance of specialist tasks requiring a high level of knowledge. Such conflicts are worsened by the growing shortage of personnel within public administration. The consequence is a backlog in working through files, a situation that in turn can give rise to discontent among citizens as well as among the employees. According to a survey conducted by the Federal Home Office, every employee in the federal administration was ill or in rehab on an average of 21 days in 2016 – a new negative record.

Digital software robots could relieve employees of some of their workload and offer a significant rise in efficiency. Thanks to Robotic Process Automation (RPA), repetitive and rule-based processes and tasks run autonomously.

What is robotic process automation?

RPA is a software program that accesses existing applications such as Outlook, SAP, or Excel in the front end and automatically executes structured processes. Since user entries are imitated, application interfaces and adaptations in the back end are not required during the use of these digital software robots. They are configured by an employee performing the standardized procedure as a model that is recorded by the software robot. RPA then carries out the same procedure over and over and follows rule-based decisions.

The advantages are obvious:

  1. A software robot works faster than a human employee, can be used flexibly and around the clock, and documents its activities seamlessly.
  2. Manual transfer errors can also be avoided.
  3. Employees are relieved of the necessity to perform time-consuming routine tasks and can dedicate their attention to more demanding activities and to providing service to citizens.
  4. Moreover, RPA offers fast profitability – in many companies, the implementation costs for RPA are amortized within one year.

What can be automated?

Any processes that are rule-based and do not require discretionary human judgment can be automated. The use of RPA is especially sensible in the case of frequently recurring or data-intensive processes with a high error ratio. Digital software robots can take over the following user entries:

  • Application logins
  • Opening of emails and attachments
  • Copying or moving files and folders
  • Completing entry forms
  • Performing calculations
  • Reading and writing information in databases
  • Following rule-based decisions
  • Extracting and processing structured data from documents
  • Obtaining data from the internet

Where is RPA already in use?

The RPA market is booming. RPA already has a place in many different industries, especially in the finance and HR sectors, where large numbers of recurring activities are required during monthly closings and personnel recruiting. In 2019, 72% of all companies worldwide will use RPA; this is the conclusion of a study conducted by ISG (ISG Automation Index, April 2017).

One concrete example of its application in public administration comes from the English community of Sefton in the vicinity of Liverpool; in 2015, it became the first administration in Great Britain to introduce RPA in its finance and tax department as a measure to reduce costs and support employees. The automated processes range from the classification of documents for certain workflows to the registration of persons and direct-debit payments of municipal taxes. Since there were no changes in existing applications and no comprehensive system tests were required during the introduction of RPA, the potential for savings became visible after only one year: the processing time for municipal taxes was reduced by almost 80% while quality rose. The employees can now concentrate on advising citizens and on strategic topics.

What RPA providers can be found on the market?

The analysts at Forrester have reviewed the most important RPA providers (as of Q2 2018) on the basis of 30 criteria from the categories “market presence”, “current portfolio”, and “strategy”. The market researchers classify the providers UiPath, followed by Automation Anywhere and Blue Prism, as the leaders – three providers from the USA where the market for RPA is more solidly established than in Germany. Nevertheless, Forrester also mentions two German RPA providers by name: Another Monday as a challenger and Servicetrace as a newcomer (Forrester Wave Robotic Process Automation, Q2 2018).

What are the hurdles to the implementation of RPA in the public sector?

RPA technologies are suitable for use in public administration. Federal lawmakers have set the guidelines for fully automated administration procedures in the act for the “Fully Automated Administrative Act” (Section 35 VVG) and in reformed tax law (Section 155 IV AO). Besides the processes in tax offices, processes in dunning procedures and in the area of administrative offenses are more and more frequently fully automated.

The European Union, however – which in the future will be the primary source of legal standards – has issued a general prohibition of automated decision-making unless the member states provide measures to prevent impairment of personal rights (Art. 22, Subsection 12 et seqq. GDPR). One example of such measures could be regular random tests by employees. It is important that procedures function transparently, strictly, and free of discrimination.

Where is the journey headed?

The advantages of RPA technology will become even greater when it is combined with artificial intelligence (AI) in the future and gains cognitive intelligence and the ability to learn on its own. This combination is also known as intelligent process automation (IPA). The addition of AI eliminates two of the restrictions on RPA: the requirements of structured data and rigid rules for making decisions. For example, AI can extract and structure the relevant data from a free text such as an email, prioritize tasks, and assign them to software robots. If it is not possible to determine how a special case can be solved, the task is delegated to an employee who answers the question. AI learns from the interaction and continuously improves as a result. Over the course of time, software robots will be able to handle increasingly complex work processes.

AI is already in use in the public sector. Six German states have been using predictive policing for three years as a means of identifying urban areas in which there is a high probability that crimes will be committed. Based on the results, the assignments of police units can be planned precisely and crimes such as burglaries and car theft can be prevented.

Even though the use of RPA and IPA can produce significant gains in efficiency, there are no indications that the use of human personnel in the work areas can be completely replaced by these technologies. Instead, the range of activities for employees in public administration will shift further in the direction of strategic, social, and knowledge-oriented tasks.

The German government has recognized the potential and significance of AI and issued a position paper for an AI strategy. Starting from this paper as a basis, an AI strategy is scheduled for adoption by the end of November 2018; its aim will be to raise the development and application of AI in Germany to a world-leading level (Key Issues of the German Government for an Artificial Intelligence Strategy, July 2018).

What approach does Detecon recommend?

Detecon relies on RPA and collaborating closely with Deutsche Telekom AG, its parent company, in the field. Deutsche Telekom has deployed 800 robots, one of the largest robot parks in the world, and has become a leader in this area. Moreover, Detecon has had years of experience in the public sector and is thoroughly familiar with its circumstances and challenges. Detecon offers seamless support from the first idea to the implementation:

  1. Development of an RPA strategy: Following an initial stock-taking, Detecon develops a long-term automation strategy for the government office that is a good fit with the general digitalization strategy and the technical target architecture so that RPA can be deployed optimally.
  2. Involvement of IT and employees: It is essential to involve the IT department and employees at an early stage in order to gain access to specialist knowledge and to convince everyone to pull together. Employees who currently handle these processes often view RPA as a threat to their own jobs instead of a lightening of their workloads. Thanks to its change management skills, Detecon is able to bring the IT department and the employees on board and to work hand in hand with them.
  3. Identification and prioritization of use cases: Use cases can be identified and prioritized in line with the RPA strategy and criteria relating to RPA suitability and legal restrictions. To this effect Detecon draws up an implementation schedule and describes the opportunities and risks.
  4. Finding the appropriate software solution: Detecon identifies and assesses leading RPA providers from the perspective of their technology, service performance, experience, costs, and differentiation characteristics.
  5. Accompanying the implementation: Detecon accompanies the technical implementation and takes charge of project and change management as well as the conduct of training programs.

RPA is an important step in digitalization that is accompanied by clear gains in efficiency and employee satisfaction. Detecon recommends the development of skills in working with software robots now so that they will be in place as a foundation for future developments such as IPA.

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