Workforce

What federal job automation looks like

managing bots (Tarikdiz/Shutterstock.com) 

As the Trump administration looks to drive efficiency and accuracy and eliminate "low-value work," agencies are starting to think about what aspects of their operations lend themselves to automation.

In an update to its workforce plan earlier this year, the White House estimated 5 percent of federal government occupations could be "automated entirely," and 60 percent could have at least 30 percent of their activities automated. The administration estimates that 45 percent of "total work activities" could be automated governmentwide.

At a Sept. 18 ACT-IAC working group meeting, participants pitched what automation in the governmental space currently looks like — and could look like in the future.

When it comes to robotics process automation, "we're beyond that stage of having a 'wow' moment," said Ed Burrows, senior advisor to the chief financial officer at the General Services Administration. GSA "is very interested in this next fiscal year, doing some type of trial application for intelligent automation," said Burrows. "We just have to figure out what to do."

GSA has identified 41 possible areas for RPA, 29 of which could save between one and 100 hours per month. But given the balance between value and difficulty in implementation, "only eight of these have been deemed worth pursuing at GSA so far."

"The biggest challenge is optimizing the process before you automate it" because the efficiency of manual processes has not been adequately evaluated "in a long time," he said.

Karen Buckley, the business development manager at vendor Fusion Applied, pointed to projects at NASA and the Food and Drug Administration that include automation technologies.

NASA has begun an RPA initiative to handle and remediate issues found with grants management. Grants managers had to manually hunt out "problem children" among active grants, contact recipients and take steps to remediate problems, Buckley said.

"It was really low-value work because the grants managers were coming in and they would literally have to work with the spreadsheet everyday and work with a contact list," she said, adding that a new automated process has "saved a lot of time and work."

The system, she said, cost just under $7,000 to implement and has already saved $50,000.

Buckley also described a medical device tracking system in use at the FDA that features image recognition, records management and workflow.

"The nurse takes a picture of the surgical tray before the surgery, then takes a picture of the surgical after the surgery, and the intelligent automation system figures out what the difference is and what's missing," she said.

In addition to monitoring surgical tray inventory, the system also keeps track of the serial numbers of the equipment and automatically links  them to the patient, hospital and doctor.

Looking ahead, the ACT-IAC working group plans to release a high-level "primer" on intelligent automation in October, previewing the roll-out of a more in-depth playbook on implementing automation, which is planned for the spring of 2019.

About the Author

Chase Gunter is a staff writer covering civilian agencies, workforce issues, health IT, open data and innovation.

Prior to joining FCW, Gunter reported for the C-Ville Weekly in Charlottesville, Va., and served as a college sports beat writer for the South Boston (Va.) News and Record. He started at FCW as an editorial fellow before joining the team full-time as a reporter.

Gunter is a graduate of the University of Virginia, where his emphases were English, history and media studies.

Click here for previous articles by Gunter, or connect with him on Twitter: @WChaseGunter

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