Charlotte Todd, business manager of NDL Software, outlines the key steps towards building a public sector body’s RPA capability
Public sector organisations have had varied experiences in using robotic process automation (RPA), but at NDL we have seen some common themes emerge on what makes for a successful deployment. This provides scope for fledgling RPA teams to learn and harness the potential of an increasingly important technology.
The starting point is to form a realistic view about what can be done with RPA. Many organisations identify a pipeline of processes they want to automate before the first deployment, but we often find that some of these are not feasible or need refinement as they are not firmly based on rules that can be applied by a bot.
We help them develop better focused plans through workshops and case study sessions, encouraging them to assess processes and potential projects. It brings up questions such as what are the drivers behind the overall plan, whether they fully understand their challenges and is RPA the right tool for specific processes? This develops the readiness to make a positive start in using the technology.
Second comes the issue of developing the capability to apply RPA to a stream of processes over the long term. Many organisations are understandably keen to build in-house skills – an ambition we can support – but in the short term they are more likely to require specialist external support.
This is where a hybrid approach can often be the best model, with an in-house capability bolstered by a reliable supplier that can come in to minimise the risk and accelerate delivery of the more complex processes.
Then comes the need to ensure everything in an RPA programme is in line with the organisation’s overall objectives. The team will have to work closely with people from a variety of departments and service teams, and this will require building a string of positive relationships, which is easier when the team can show it has a grasp of the broad priorities and is ready to learn what they need to achieve.
Part of this is in educating people about the technology’s capabilities, making clear that it is not suitable for every process, deployments are often not simple and that it requires specialist skills, especially when dealing with legacy applications. This comes with allaying fears about automation taking away jobs, making clear it is there to complement, not replace the workforce.
Serious thinking needs to be done about how the technology fits within the organisation’s wider digital capabilities. It needs to complement other technologies such as e-forms, business intelligence tools, apps, form recognisers and chatbots, and while these may not yet have been deployed it should be considered how they could be used with RPA.
It is also necessary to look at the capacity to scale up and extend the early automations to reduce the need for new investments. From the first deployments there is an opportunity to build foundations for the longer term by embedding and refining the methodology, establishing best practice, upskilling staff and, depending on how quickly you want to move, growing the team.
Norwich City Council has provided an example of how to gradually build from a limited to a more ambitious application of RPA. It invested in the NDL suite 10 years ago with the aim of synchronising data on individuals among the different systems on which it resided. This began with bringing together email addresses on those for revenues and benefits, housing and contact management, but also showed the capacity to synchronise other attributes such as date of birth, postal addresses and national insurance numbers.
This laid the ground for a project to use automation in improving the Tell Us Once service, under which people can tell the council once of a change in circumstance and assume it is informing all of its teams. Previously it ran through a workflow process that let the teams in charge of 15 systems know of a change but which did not guarantee it would be registered in good time.
Now the council has a process in which the NDL SX code will act on the notification of a change such as the death of a resident, trigger a series of verifications and checks on whether the person had interacted with each system, then notify only those that are relevant. It means that if a team receives a notification they know it is highly relevant to them and they should make the change immediately.
The code for such processes has been retained in a library for possible re-use, and the team has made other changes such as expanding the number of databases the system can interrogate and update and introducing utilities such as address matching. This has strengthened the capability for more ambitious deployments, one of which took place early in 2021 under the Government’s Breathing Space initiative to freeze debts to the council on request during the pandemic lockdown.
The need was to respond to an email request by identifying whether an individual had a debt registered on a system, rather than just being on it, then notify the specific department to freeze the debt. The council was able to do this rapidly, repurposing scripts in its automation library to develop and test the system in half a day each, making it ready to go live.
It shows the value of using the assets from previous deployments to make new ones easier and reinforce RPA as a valuable tool to create better services.
Learn from community
In addition, RPA teams can learn a lot from engaging with those from other organisations that have been on a similar journey, something that NDL can facilitate through its own user community with its focus on the public sector.
The priorities can be conveyed with an alternative meaning for RPA so it becomes Ready, People, Accelerate: ensure you are ready with the pipeline of suitable processes; think about the people involved in the journey; and have a direction set to accelerate deployments strategically.
NDL has helped many public sector organisations on their digital transformation journey. Read some of their success stories here
Image from iStock, Melpomenem