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Whitehall interest in robotic automation is rising sharply, says Cabinet Office lead


Mark Say Managing Editor

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The leader of the Cabinet Office team promoting the use of robotic process automation (RPA) in central government has said interest in the technology has reached a tipping point.

James Merrick-Potter, head of the Robotic Automation Unit, was speaking at UKAuthority’s March of the Bots conference, as the leader of a small team set up to complement the work done by the centre of excellence created as part of the Cabinet Office’s Robotics Automation Partnership with Capgemini.

It spent much of its first year in exploratory work, having engagements with more 40 departments and arm’s length bodies, running a series of webinars and setting up a community of interest.

During the summer it began to support some Whitehall bodies on deployments of automating services. This has included projects with the Department for Education and Environment Agency.

Merrick-Potter said the main thrust of the unit has been “supporting departments that want to build things themselves,” and that: “Over the past three months we’ve been seeing a massive shift in attitudes. People were unsure at the start, but now they’ve been coming to us almost by the hour asking how we could build it into their business planning and make sure they are ahead of the game.

“They’re realising this is happening. It’s not the future, automation is everywhere and it should be in government. People want to work out how they can go with that.”

HMRC efforts

He said HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) has been government’s leader in the field, having committed heavily to RPA before the Cabinet Office launched its initiative. Since HMRC set up its Automated Delivery Centre in 2016 it has created about 13,500 robots deployed across at least 78 solutions and processed more than 15 million transactions through robotic automation, with use cases in areas such as contact centre dashboards and employer registration.

Significant work has also been done by the Department for Work and Pensions with the creation of an Intelligent Automation Garage.

Merrick Potter identified six main lessons to emerge from the unit’s work so far. These include the need to engage stakeholders; set the infrastructure and architecture with the choice of RPA technology and infrastructure to house the robots; secure the funding; de-risk the delivery by educating stakeholders and staging a controlled ‘go live’ that can then be scaled up; validate the pipeline by choosing the right processes for RPA; and align the pipeline to demand by optimising delivery schedules.

Moving to centre

He also emphasised that government is in the early stages of harnessing the technology but that it is likely to move to the centre of its transformation plans.  

“At the moment we are doing soft basic automation, automating processes as is,” he said. “We’re doing that because we are about three or four years behind private industry, and it will not dramatically improve services.

“What will really change things is intelligent automation, with AI longer term. It will be a key player in all the transformation programmes in government; every business case and process plan we see has an automation line. It will become a workforce of humans and machines, needing a full rethink, but it will take time.”

He added that progress is likely to be made by taking on small projects that can show what can be done on a large scale.

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