How the local authority is using the Blue Prism platform as a strategic tool for transformation
Automation is evolving from a tactical to a transformational tool for the public sector.
An increasing number of organisations are realising the value in digital workers augmenting the contribution of their employees, providing a pool of resources to help it do and achieve more with limited resources.
Robotic process automation (RPA) has become a proven technology in the sector, and there is now a growing interest in intelligent automation, incorporating capabilities such as machine learning, computer vision and text analytics.
It promises to increase the long term and strategic value to organisations, going beyond the initial efficiency benefits for existing processes to supporting transformation through the design of new processes around automation. It is on the way to becoming a foundation for the way they work.
But it is not a simple process, and there will be limited benefits in a series of ad hoc deployments. There is a need to see how it has to fit within the organisation’s strategic priorities and to develop a framework for the long term.
Norfolk County Council is one of those that has made impressive progress using the Blue Prism intelligent automation framework over the past two years, having begun its effort in 2019, launched the first automation in 2020, and implemented 26 by November 2021. Its RPA manager, Keith McDowell, told the recent UKAuthority AI & Bots4Good conference how it approached the programme.
He said initially the council saw the potential for efficiencies and savings in IT, business and finance operations.
It decided to begin with IT operations and broke the team’s activities into different areas including prescriptive maintenance, proactive monitoring, back-up and patch management, and network support, identifying the processes for which automation could add value by freeing up a skilled employee from mundane tasks.
This was followed by a similar approach to business operations, focusing on processes for payments to HM Revenue and Customs, records management and cleaning procurement data. McDowell said that automating the payments made it 100% error free and saved over 1,500 hours per year, and that for the sorting of over 151,000 records for destruction or retention it reduced the time to complete from a projected 151 weeks to just nine. In addition, the data cleaning across Oracle, ContrOCC and contract register systems was reduced from 20 hours per month to two.
All of this provided a strong business case for wider implementations and boosted the confidence in the technology among everyone involved in the processes.
It also showed that automation could fit within the threefold strategy for the council, which includes streams to focus on smarter working, a pipeline of projects and delivery. While there is a team responsible for building the pipeline it has allowed McDowell to lead the delivery team in concentrating on individual automations. He said this set-up helps his team to deliver solutions to service teams more quickly.
The council now has a solution architecture that combines the Blue Prism and Microsoft automation platforms, along with a number of business applications and services, and integrations with systems including GOV.UK, HMRC, Ordnance Survey, Office 365 and several supplier systems.
See the big picture
McDowell said there are important points to remember in an intelligent automation programme, especially that there is a need to see it as “a big picture, not just a single tool”. Within this there are three things to think about.
One is that intelligent automation has to be seen as part of a big framework that includes other systems. You need to understand the problem and know where the integration points with different systems have to be, both for internal systems and those of external partners.
The second is the need to draw on knowledge from the framework in the build process, taking into account steps such as separating business and IT processes and reporting on how things are performing. Then comes the need to establish best practice as soon as possible.
“Intelligent automation is more than saying ‘Let me in bring in this tool’,” he said. “You have to have good understanding of the whole delivery process.”
Norfolk has used various tools to deliver all this, including business and automation scorecards and a process/project approval form all built on Microsoft forms.
McDowell also outlined a delivery lifecycle with stages for pipeline, process design, solution design, the build, testing, stabilising and monitoring.
He concluded that the key takeaway is to avoid thinking that automation is easy, regardless of what the solution is.
Knowledge and guidelines
“It takes a technical person, good knowledge of the business processes and practical guidelines to make things work,” he said.
“You should clearly define the customer journey; the better you know the better solution you will be able to deliver. Keep an open mind and the culture change will happen; you need to be able to accept that.
“Build a maturity into your team. It won’t happen on day one, but maturity will lead to success and always communicate success to the business.
“That’s what we’ve accomplished at Norfolk, and so far all my customers are very happy that we’ve offered them this type of solution.”
To find out more about Blue Prism's automation platform contact Richard Boddington, Blue Prism's head of local government and housing here