In 1983, I pursued a Master’s in Public Administration at the University of Oklahoma (OU) just before leaving the United States (U.S.) Army. I thought it would be my ticket to a post-active-duty career. During one of my university courses, the lecture topic was “should government be run as a business.” It was an incredible discussion for me at the time. In the military, politics just does not come up. Soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines are serving to execute the orders of the U.S. President not debate politics or policy. Ultimately, I settled on the side of the discussion that said government is not and cannot be run like a business.
Last week, President Biden sent Congress the budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2022 (FY22). The document is very different from the previous two budgets I commented on (FY20 and FY21). The budget is, of course, a document that steers government agencies as it outlines the administration's policy intent. It is still early in the process but the use of automation is present in this budget proposal. Certainly, some will argue automation took off under the previous administration, but you can equally argue that it got its best start two administrations ago. In past administrations, automation was specifically and unquestionably called out as a smart way to augment the workforce and help move employees from lower-valued to higher-value work. The wording in this FY22 budget is not quite to that level of support. I am hopeful the expected release of the President’s Management Agenda will continue to strongly endorse automation.
Let me call out a few places in the FY22 proposal where the budget is strongly supportive of automation:
Upskilling and education
Democratizing the use of robotic process automation (RPA) and automation is a core UiPath belief. Our free, online and on-demand training leads the industry. The FY22 budget proposal charges the U.S. Department of Education to ensure it “increases aid for high-poverty schools, advances equity in education,” and helps “meet the needs of students with disabilities,” among other things. The request is backed up with a proposed 41% increase in spending for the agency. Our recent announcement describing our support to historically black colleges and our December announcement that UiPath robots are helping empower adults with autism align with the administration’s goals. Additionally, the Department of Labor (DOL) would “support training opportunities that provide pathways to the middle class by building workers’ skills.” Our work with Byte Back, colleges and universities, and a quick search of the salaries commanded by RPA and automation developers are clear indications that UiPath sees a similar path.
As we recover from the past year, automation (RPA, artificial intelligence, machine learning, chatbots, etc.) continues to be seen as a tool to address many U.S. challenges. The proposed FY22 budget would charge the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to “improve the capacity” of states and territories to “modernize public health data collection nationwide.” Automation is well suited to be designed, deployed, and scaled fast. Software robots could normalize health data and ensure properly safeguarded data sets are immediately available. Over time, under-budget state programs could be aligned to the new standard, thus making data collection, management, and analysis even easier.
The budget proposal states “the pandemic has shined a light on the inadequacies of State’s administration of their unemployment insurance system.” Automation is a way to unite the states. While the government could look for one single system arranged by specific verticals, it is much more practical to seamlessly connect these systems via automation. Some states have already applied automation to their biggest challenges:
- The California Department of Motor Vehicles pivoted their in-office experience to a virtual experience, saving time, democratizing services, and saving taxpayer dollars.
- The New Jersey Courts ensured citizens were able to settle court fees by using UiPath and adapting their process to existing software.
- Palm Beach County, Florida is the nation's 25th largest county with 1.45 million residents. The Circuit Clerk's office uses five robots with artificial intelligence (AI) to ensure county court documents are efficiently and effectively received, processed, and filed. The impact of which is the repetitive, routine, and mundane work the clerk’s office once did is automated, freeing clerks to conduct more higher-valued work.
Federal agencies tasked to support resolving the inadequacies problem can leverage/share RPA and automation solutions rapidly to meet their goals.
The federal-to-state support does not have to take years to achieve, nor must it take millions to accomplish. By leveraging UiPath and other intelligent automation, disparate systems can be rapidly integrated at the user interface layer. The knowledge gained would inform plans to create modernized solutions later, but for now the need to consolidate the data for better data-driven solutions is immediately achievable.
The FY22 budget proposal calls for the Veterans Administration (VA) to modernize its information technology, improve its electronic health program, and ensure veterans efficiently receive their benefits (see page 30 of the proposed budget). The budget proposal calls for an additional $500 million to be added and administered by the General Services Administration (GSA) to the Technology Modernization Fund (TMF) to “retire antiquated legacy technology systems.”
The TMF is currently a loan program but I would hope to see some type of grant option for agencies that apply automation metrics to their applications (and then meet those metrics). Saving time, avoiding cost, increasing capacity, and reducing errors are all returns on investment (ROIs) that agencies could prove to the GSA in return for having some or all of the TMF loan repayments waived.
Finally, the National Science Foundation (NSF) is charged with creating “a new Directorate for technology, innovation, and partnerships.” The directorate would “expedite technology development” in a variety of areas, including AI.
Automation's place in U.S. government agencies
Clearly, automation will have its place in the federal and state workforces going forward. With all the goodness we see in the budget proposal, there is a small area of concern. In the early 2000’s, while working at Joint Forces Command (JFCOM) in Norfolk for the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA), we discussed an interesting model: digital natives to digital immigrants. The theory is that digital natives always will have an ‘automation first’ mindset. This ‘tribe’ will ask “why are we touching it, why isn’t it an app, and why is this not available all the time?”
The digital immigrant ‘tribe’ wants to use automation—they like automation and are not afraid of it. Yet they snap back to their analog living almost as a default. The FY22 budget seems to be more digital immigrant than digital native. This budget proposal authorizes at least 10 government agencies to increase headcount. This is digital immigrant thinking.
The months, if not a year, it takes to onboard and train new staff is a missed opportunity.
By adopting an automation first mindset, these agencies could rapidly scale their current workforce with automation. Agencies developing automation solutions would realize a reduction in backlog, faster benefits process times, higher citizen satisfaction scores, and increased fraud detection, just as the myriad of UiPath government clients are reporting. The digital native knows you start automating the mundane, tedious, and highly repetitive task to gain immediate benefit. And you hire and train staff to apply employees to places where empathy, ethics, and equality are most needed.
In that University of Oklahoma class, I agreed the government cannot run as a business and we should not try. We all agreed a bloated government did not equal good government. In the past, digital immigrant thinking was to onboard lots of people fast, train faster, and finally tackle the challenge was the only tool available. Automation in 1992 was when you had a computer, and you entered data into it all the time. That model has been with us for years. Digital native thinking is an automation first mentality with a fully automated enterprise™ standing that model on its head.
With automation, a virtual workforce can perform many of the mundane, repetitive, and oh-so-boring work. While software robots are doing that work, employees have additional time to serve under-served constituents, reduce inequalities in service delivery, and improve the technology around them such that the information technology infrastructure is more robust and resilient.
The FY22 budget proposal reflects how good government policy can transcend administrations. Automation will make our work-life balance easier for government employees. After all, making government better ensures automation for good; and we all deserve some goodness after 2020.
Public Sector Evangelist and CTO, Americas, UiPath