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Defra shows value of automation centre of excellence


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Image source: Pasertthai

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has provided a foundation for the scaling up of automations to supports it digital transformation, writes David Burrows, public sector industries leader for UiPath

Plenty of public sector organisations have begun to use robotic process automation, responding to the promise of increased efficiency and a substantial step in digital transformation progress.

But many need to reap the benefits even more quickly and are looking for ways to accelerate the effort with a service design that can be quickly replicated around the organisation, while taking account of the demands of individual processes.

Defra is emerging as something of a pioneer, with the creation of its Digital Robotic Automation Centre of Excellence having provided the momentum for a scaling up of the technology since it was set up in 2020.

The service owner in Defra, Dave More, says its interest was stirred by the success of HM Revenue and Customs with automation, and its innovation team wanted to explore the potential for the department to deal with two big challenges; coping with heavy volumes of work on limited funds; and overcoming the need for staff to transfer data from one legacy application to another.

While the Defra group consists of a number of agencies, there are processes that are common among them – such as invoicing and enforcement – which leads them to provide for a ‘national once’ approach to their modernisation.

National once approach

“The idea was that if you are a large organisation dispersed geographically, your ‘national once’ services would have a potentially strong understanding of what they are doing,” More says. “Hopefully they would have one version of the truth rather than many versions for the back office.”

A proof of concept for automation was run in the Environment Agency over 2017-18, which showed a robot in the back office could process a task 16 times in three minutes compared with twice for a person working alone and with a higher degree of reliability.

It followed this up with a large volume, relatively complex process on the issuing of environmental permits and licences, showing it could reduce a process that took hours to a few minutes.

This prompted Defra to invest over £1 million in the creation of the centre of excellence, supported by UiPath, as an internal resource to make new deployments faster and more cost-effective, whilst maintaining high quality.

It set out 11 service design principles for using automation in the Defra group, of which More emphasises the importance of two. The first is not to assume that colleagues in the group business units can tell the automation specialists everything they need to know the first time; it often takes reassessment and iteration to get things right.

The second is a recognition of the importance of managing data quality and accuracy, which leads to a low risk build approach, deploying solutions in high supervision mode until they are validated by the business partners.

Pause points

More highlights the pause points within this mode for a hypothetical back office process. The first comes after an email instruction to a generic mailbox, with the robot asking the user to check whether all the relevant tasks have been identified.

When the user has validated this and entered the data into a SharePoint file, the robot asks them to check the information before it is committed to a legacy system, following which the robot asks the user to check again before being fed to a downstream system. Finally, it asks the user to check the content of an email notification before it goes to the citizen.

“We have this ‘live proving’, high supervision state until we’ve seen a record go through the process and the business confirms the robot is trusted, then we can go through the process, remove the pause points and drop it into lower supervision,” More says.

More says a number key lessons have emerged from the work so far by the Defra centre of excellence. One is to get the business users to think of robots as new starters in a team which, like human workers, will put up their hands to ask for help.

Others are to recognise that incurred data entry has consequences downstream; that initial ‘live proving’ deployments, in which a robot pauses to ask the user to check their work before it is submitted, can bring a quick return on investment; that this approach negates the need for traditional user acceptance testing; and that once the robot is trusted it is possible to remove the pause points from the process.

Foundation for transformation

This approach has provided the foundation for a scaling up of the Defra group’s automation of business processes and reflects the ability to take an incremental approach in digital transformation, rather than investing heavily in large scale replacement systems.

Automation can accelerate the digital journey in three key areas: by transforming operational processes and integrating service management with other systems; transforming the citizen experience with more self-service; and transforming business models with the integration of new and legacy systems. The latter can combine with the capabilities of machine learning and artificial intelligence to create new value propositions in delivering services.

It chimes with one of the Central Digital and Data Office’s key seven principles for managing legacy technology, that it should be subject to continuous improvement planning to keep it up-to-date, and it provides scope for transformation through a series of changes rather than a ‘rip and replace’ approach.

This makes automation a key tool in the modernisation of public services, and the example of Defra shows it is possible to build a strong internal capability to accelerate on the potential.

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