IA provides a strategic potential for the sector, writes Richard Boddington, head of local government and housing associations at Blue Prism
Automation has already developed a firm footprint in the public sector, with an increasing number of organisations turning to robotic process automation (RPA) to handle mundane, rules based administrative processes.
Some have now begun to look at raising the game, exploring the potential for the more advanced intelligent automation (IA) to take on more demanding tasks. Until now the initiatives have been limited in number; but the digital shake-up from the Covid-19 pandemic is highlighting new possibilities, and raises the prospect of this being the right time to show ambition with IA.
This hypothesis provided the basis for a recent UKA Live discussion in which I took part with Gus Niven, director of intelligent automation at City of Edinburgh Council, Geoff Connell, chief digital officer of Norfolk County Council, Robyne Clinton, digital operations manager of Futures Housing Group, and UKAuthority publisher Helen Olsen.
It defined the distinction between RPA and IA: the former dealing with processes that rely entirely on structured data; the latter bringing in a more cognitive element and other technologies such as character recognition and translation services to handle unstructured data, making it possible to take automation further.
It also produced a consensus that, despite the need for fresh investment when there is a forbidding outlook for public finances, the time is right to make more of IA. It can go beyond the already proven tactical capabilities of automation to provide a valuable asset in the strategic approach to public services.
The discussion highlighted the technology’s potential to provide quick tactical wins in automating cumbersome processes, freeing up staff time and reducing human error. This can be important when there is a sense of urgency and no time for a service redesign.
But it can also play the strategic role in contributing to the upgrade or replacement of a process or application. The details will depend on an organisation’s roadmap for transforming its digital operations, but as the early implementations show clear benefits, the potential for IA in other areas and the broader strategy will become clear.
This could extend to supporting multi-agency working, with IA managing the exchange of data between organisations for services in which they have to work collaboratively – especially in the integration of health and social care.
As part of the discussion, Geoff Connell said that Norfolk is looking at how IA can be used in hospital discharges and adult social care; and Gus Niven reported that Edinburgh has a project looking at automation within children’s panels and reviews, which require the collaboration of a number of agencies.
It can also contribute to data security and meeting the demands of the General Data Protection Regulation. A process carried out by robotics rather than humans is going to stick to the rules, without the dangers of error or temptations to misuse the data, and can only stay within the regulations set in the automation.
There are signs of an increasing understanding of these benefits in the public sector: an audience poll during the discussion showed that a third of respondents had already seen their organisations begin to roll out IA as a strategic transformation tool.
This potential has been reinforced by a growing number of mature and proven solutions on the market, with components that can be re-used and a willingness among public sector bodies to share their experiences with the technology.
Blue Prism has contributed to this with the development of its Digital Exchange (DX), a robust IA market for accessing and downloading pre-built technologies. It gives customers a menu and direct access to innovations from the company and its partners, helping to deliver IA capabilities and build out, scaling up and adding skills to digital workers.
This can provide a significant asset for public authorities, enabling them to meet the demands of rapidly improving existing processes, while incorporating the capabilities into their strategic planning for digital operations.
Of course, the move will come with its challenges. It needs a business case, and this is going to be more difficult to build when much of the rationale for investment is in its future potential.
But it is possible to identify a number of processes to which it could be applied, make calculations on savings, and show how these can cover the initial cost. Once this is done, and those first savings delivered, it lays the ground for other implementations and makes it easier to obtain further investment.
Other issues include: the need for good information governance; the usual requirements to ensure that good quality data goes into the processes and it is used in an ethical manner; the development of skills internally to support the use of IA; and the potential to share good practice and re-usable solutions between public authorities. These are challenging, but there is a will to make it happen and instances of organisations beginning to share their experience.
The move to IA provides the scope for it to be included in ambitious plans for public services, providing a new approach to a process that feeds into a new type of service delivery. It can form part of a strategy for a public authority to maintain and improve services in the face of mounting pressure.
It is not a panacea, but it is a valuable tool that becomes more important when used effectively with others, and the fallout from Covid-19 provides the incentive to begin exploiting its potential. The time is right for IA in the public sector.
Catch up now on the full UKA Live conversation below or click here to arrange a free process workshop with Blue Prism to explore the opportunity in automation for your organisation.
Image from iStock, Just Super