Navigating COVID-19 with digital workers

The issues the Australian government faced before COVID-19 disrupted the world are really very similar to those being faced in the midst of the crisis. The big difference is that demand across all aspects of government services are now surging.

Greg Eyre

The biggest challenge is resourcing. The burdens that government agencies are now under require an immediate shift to not only manage daily workloads, but to also keep pace with rapidly changing requirements and manage a remote workforce seemingly overnight. All of this while keeping data security top of mind.

In many ways, COVID-19 has forced Australian government departments to explore and adopt new technologies far ahead of schedule. Many had been assessing higher level cognitive technologies before the crisis, but now it’s essential to address the growing backlog of unemployment applications, JobSeeker/JobKeeper claims and small business loans, to name a few.

Fundamentally, government departments have to put in place the mechanisms to deal with a rapid surge in citizens as customers when things unexpectedly escalate overnight. Instead, many find themselves with too few resources to keep up with demand. The democratic challenges that the whole public sector is facing at the moment can’t be understated.

To complicate matters, there’s rising expectations from Australian citizens, all wanting the ability to engage with different government services remotely, from a vast range of devices. They want their requests sorted quickly, without having to sit on the phone for hours or have websites crash.

It’s certainly a period of unprecedented austerity, challenges and pressures, with many departments facing significant budget reductions. If you think about a private sector organisation, many wouldn’t be able to operate successfully if 40 percent of their budget was stripped away. Yet, public sector organisations are expected to not only deliver the same services on a reduced budget, but more of them at an improved level, all the time.

Preparing for the unexpected

These challenges can’t be addressed by simply throwing people at the problem. There just aren’t enough resources to do that. This not only impacts the services that departments deliver, but most importantly, the employees that work for them, which is often overlooked.

Preparedness is key to coping when a crisis like COVID-19 hits. It’s all hands-on deck to not only address the crisis as it’s unfolding, but also act swiftly to better serve the Australian population. Shifting workers from one job function to covering something completely different, as well as accommodating people working remotely.

We’ve worked with councils in the UK who have had to repurpose 500 people to deliver a new type of service. That’s a significant percentage of a workforce that suddenly has to do something different the next day. How do government departments release capacity of employees from the back office and enable them to do that?

The role of digital workers

With mounting mandates to address these challenges, an increasing number of government departments, such as finance, defence and taxation, are exploring robotic process automation (RPA) as a way to deliver on their specific missions, by augmenting their human workforce with a “digital workforce.”

Digital workers (or software robots) mimic the way humans perform the predictable, repetitive, tedious and error-prone portions of business processes. Since they follow programmed rules, they automatically improve process quality, efficiency, consistency, accuracy and compliance. Just as importantly, they allow departments to focus on more high value probabilistic workloads, sometimes with fewer people and often with smaller budgets.

Digital workers can address some of the most pressing issues departments are facing at the moment, particularly in areas such as unemployment application processing, JobKeeper/JobSeeker claims processing, employee transfer processing, call centre-based case retrieval and record management. Virtually any high volume, high touch, business rule-driven, repeatable process is a candidate.

This isn’t about putting a robot in front of a computer and getting it to churn away for 24 hours a day. It’s very much about how a digital workforce can be used to augment and support the work that government employees are doing, while also enhancing the outcomes of the individuals delivering services to citizens.

Unlike humans, however, digital workers don’t take breaks or vacations, don’t make mistakes and, most importantly, aren’t susceptible to COVID-19!

Looking at the long-term

Rather than thinking about a digital workforce as a means to get through the COVID-19 crisis, however, government departments must begin an RPA journey with the future of work in mind.

Start by identifying what a digital workforce could look like tomorrow or in six years’ time. The beauty of RPA is that it will continue to deliver, evolve and scale for government departments in the long-term.

Now’s the time to begin considering how your department can harness the potential of marrying digital and human resources into a single team, working alongside each other to deliver better and more efficient services to Australian citizens.

*Greg Eyre is VP ANZ for Blue Prism

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