Smarter working: time to embrace automation

Where should the public sector start when looking to automate complex manual processes and routine tasks? And what are the pitfalls?
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With the government facing several barriers to transformation, including skills gaps, a funding crunch and a need to do more with less, process automation could be a godsend – if implemented correctly. For that, public sector organisations must identify where automation would help them to achieve their aims.

The first step for leaders is to pinpoint complex manual processes and routine tasks that would be better undertaken by a machine.

Lianne Anderton is delivery lead of the Intelligent Automation Garage (IAG) at DWP Digital, which delivers services for the Department for Work and Pensions. The IAG uses agile working methods and design-led practices across a range of technologies, including robotic process automation (RPA) and chatbots, machine learning and deep learning.

Anderton says that before setting out on an automation project there are two qualifying questions. Is the process of high value to the organisation (owing to the time taken or cost to process) or is there value in the outcome to citizens or the organisation, or both? Could an automation solution be applied and bring a return on investment within the year? In essence, she says, the solutions that the IAG develops fall into the category of “problems that are worth solving”.

Start small. Make sure you do as much research as you can and speak to people who have implemented automation

Anderton continues: “These two simple criteria have meant that the work the IAG does is rooted in realising value quickly and has brought innovative solutions that can scale up to the size of the DWP. This is how a comparatively small team has helped to save millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money, freed up hundreds of thousands of agent hours to spend on more meaningful decision-­making work and created a better experience for the people who need the DWP’s help. And all in the most sustainable way possible.”

Decision-making takes up a huge chunk of DWP agents’ time. This means evaluating evidence; understanding complex legislation and policy; and knowing how to apply that to an individual’s life, usually at a point when they are experiencing a crisis or some kind of hardship.

“Automation can do the simpler, mundane elements of a process, such as gathering information, digital filing and transcribing documents, which leaves more time for agents to dedicate to making those decisions. It can also create a more flexible workforce, as teams have the potential to be better used or redeployed where there is a more immediate need,” Anderton explains.

For example, budgeting loans are available to people in crisis. The demand for these always spikes in the run-up to Christmas. Originally, issuing them was a high-volume, highly manual paper-based process that lasted 36 days from application to money transfer. This often meant that applicants felt the need to contact the DWP to chase up their applications. The IAG fully automated the service in 12 weeks. Applications are now made online, progress updates are sent via SMS and the funds are paid into a citizen’s bank within five days – seven times faster than the original process.

The NHS has also been leading the charge in process automation. Reuben Morgan is team manager at Medicines Homecare. He has led a project, funded by the Welsh government, that uses RPA to clinically check prescriptions for Swansea Bay University Health Board.

“We needed to make sure that we mirrored the role of the pharmacist,” Morgan says. “Because then we can release the pharmacist from this rather monotonous, repetitive process and give them more time ­instead at the cutting edge of pharmacy. There, they can make those serious clinical interventions and add lots of value to a patient’s treatment, rather than checking a routine repeat prescription.”

The success of the project led the organisation to look at other manual and time-consuming processes that could be automated, such as invoicing. The key, Morgan says, is to always engage with the workforce from day one to show them the value that they could provide and where they can best apply their skills.

“We have a human workforce and a robotic workforce that are working hand in hand to make sure we can provide the best possible service for our patients,” he adds.

Elsewhere, the University Hospitals of Derby and Burton NHS Found-ation Trust is still in the early stages of its automation journey. It is already clear that small steps add up to a big difference, according to William Monaghan, its executive chief digital information officer.

“Replacing simple processes is a big one,” he says. “As one example, last week we wrote some code to pull workforce information from one system into another. That process now runs 365 days a year and doesn’t need anyone to intervene. So we are getting better information and the person who was doing it manually gets more than 260 hours back a year to do more meaningful work. And we never build up a backlog.” 

We’re getting better information and the person who was doing it manually gets more than 260 hours back a year to do more meaningful work

Monaghan adds that his organisation is also starting to use automation in research, pulling data from multiple systems to allow research specialists to analyse it faster and more easily.

There are, of course, challenges, to implementing any kind of technology modernisation programme and process automation is no different.

Consultant David Biden has worked on many automation projects across the public sector. He says it’s common to run successful proof-of-value tests, but they don’t lead to the full roll-out, sometimes because of problems with scaling up the solution. More often projects hit a wall with trade unions, which are concerned about the impact of process automation on jobs.

Working on an automation project for University College London, Biden says the union’s concern was that people would be replaced with robots and that couldn’t be allowed to happen. “And that was a battle,” he says.

He adds that the ‘people will lose their jobs’ mantra has been a common one across almost all RPA projects on which he has worked. Another example is the Driver & Vehicle Licensing Agency, where concerns have been triggered about job losses across many digital projects, not just automation. So despite potential huge cost savings, the prospect of job losses can halt plans for automation.

But the public sector can still investigate automating aspects of people’s jobs and train those people to take on other roles across the organisation, according to Biden. 

That would mean “reducing the cost of onboarding someone, which is a lot in the public sector. We are going to train someone up to advance their career and then we’re going to also remove the cost from this HR department of processing these timesheets. That’s the way that automation should work in the public sector,” he says.

When it comes to how public sector leaders can identify automation opportunities, Morgan has this advice: “Start small. Seek advice from health providers and the public sector, but also see what the private sector is doing. Ensure that you do as much research as you can and speak to people who have implemented automation. Also, get IT involved and they can highlight time delays, any access and firewall issues, and user settings. And make sure that you get your paymasters on board really early.” 

He adds that these decisions should involve the people who are in fact doing that job. 

“I couldn’t implement an invoice ­processing automation piece without the assistance of the invoice-­processing staff, because you have to mirror the exact process,” Morgan says. “They know how those invoices come in and what the pitfalls are, and how many steps to take. If you involve all members of staff, you get greater buy-in – and that means you have a greater chance of success.”