State governments have emerged as a proving ground for RPA technology. And, with 180 different agencies and more than half a million full-time employees, Texas’s is one of the biggest. With that many employees and with Texas facing the same pressures on its tax revenues as many other states, automation technologies including RPA can have an outsized impact on productivity and cost savings.
RPA Today recently sat down with Krishna Edathil, the director of Enterprise Solution Services (Cloud/AI and RPA) for the Texas Department of Information Resources (DIR) to talk about the state’s culture of innovation, RPA use cases his department is focused on and how the pandemic has fast tracked automation projects.
RPA Today: From your perspective, how important is RPA for Texas government and have you had challenges getting projects in place?
Krishna Edathil: Texas has always been a leader in innovation. At the Texas Department of Information Resources (DIR), we believe Robotic Process Automation (RPA), the most popular branch of Artificial Intelligence (AI), is a critical, innovative technology for Texas state agencies, higher education institutes, and county and local governments, especially at a time when we must deliver more with less.
RPA brings efficiency and agility that helps Texas agencies provide services to end customers faster, cheaper, and more securely. RPA automates processes on top of legacy systems. So, we can achieve a positive return within just a few months.
Like with cloud adoption, Texas had great leadership support to be able to fast track and obtain momentum with RPA implementation. With the Covid-19 pandemic, many agencies and DIR service providers were able to put RPA to work.
Covid-19 has just reduced the gap between strategy and its implementation significantly. In some cases, the RPA projects went live within a week from procurement to production.
RPA Today: How do you see the latest technologies like RPA, NLP, AI, and ML changing the face of automation for state government?
Krishna Edathil: I see RPA, Natural Language Processing (NLP) and Machine Learning (ML)—all branching out of AI—completely changing the way we conduct business. In our context, they assist Texas agencies in simplifying many real-life use cases. We have over 180 agencies and higher education institutes and more than 3,500 other state and local entities.
Organizations can leverage RPA bots across an application User Interface (UI) or through Application Programming Interfaces (APIs), which means regardless of the age of the system, we can still automate activities within those systems. This is a great alternative to investing millions of dollars and thousands of hours in a system modernization effort when funding and budget constraints limit what you can really do. Instead, organizations can implement RPA across those existing systems.
Not only can these technologies improve our own employee experiences and work product, they also enable much better customer service to our constituents, either directly, using NLP to understand the intent of a constituent request and RPA to solve the constituent’s problem in real-time or by freeing employees to focus on high-touch constituent service.
ML and AI models also enable self-healing and can ‘train’ bots through repetition, making them even more valuable to an agency. These technologies, RPA in particular, change how we drive productivity and make it much easier for the business to participate in automating processes that will deliver the greatest value.
RPA Today: You are a technology leader in the state. What are your conversations like with your peers in other agencies regarding RPA?
Krishna Edathil: I’m seeing lots of interest and some passionate leaders who want to see this technology adopted quickly.
There is process and change management that goes into adopting any new technology. However, the proof for the benefits of RPA has been demonstrated in private enterprise, at the federal level, and now at the state level.
RPA, ML, and AI technologies are needed to automate the processes and to extend the operational age of the systems we rely on. I believe that these new technologies will also help us recruit new talent as the skills they will learn will be relevant and marketable.
When discussing RPA with others, we compare the benefits achieved through automation using metrics like hours saved, accuracy, compliance, and improved service delivery. We also discuss best practices for achieving success.
RPA Today: Where can the citizens and state employees of Texas expect to see the most benefit from RPA? Is there a use case that seems to resonate more than others?
Krishna Edathil: Yes, there are hundreds of use cases for RPA. I’m seeing agencies discussing business processes within security, IT, legal, audit, accounting, and HR that are perfect for RPA automation. There are also manual processes in contact centers, general data consolidation and reporting, customer support, and social services. Lately, there has been a focus on using RPA to support a distributed and remote workforce.
I am looking at data/document management and chatbot integrations as the next use cases for the early adopters.
RPA bots can quickly scale to accommodate spikes in volume, whether it’s processing tax filing requests, handling unemployment claims, or as we’ve seen with COVID-19, dealing with spikes in lab reports. Any process that could be impacted by high demand is perfect for RPA automation.
One COVID-19-related project used RPA to automate the manual de-duplication of patient records directly resulting in a savings of at least 300 human hours per week. In another significant example, we are saving state epidemiologists about 80 hours per month per epidemiologist by eliminating an administrative task, enabling them focus on what they do best during a time when we need those skills most.
RPA Today: We often hear RPA is quick, easy, and relatively inexpensive. If we pulled the curtain back, what challenges did you see from the standpoint of governance, training, or legislative considerations?
Krishna Edathil: This is a great question. At the very outset, I must acknowledge that we have great support from the Texas Legislature. In 2019, it passed legislation that requires that “each state agency and local government shall, in the administration of the agency or local government, consider using next generation technologies, including cryptocurrency, blockchain technology, and artificial intelligence.”
That said, the primary challenge right now is training within the IT departments and perhaps some fear within the business over new technology. This can be quickly overcome by running a Proof of Concept (POC) or pilot and enrolling in online training—much of which is offered free of charge by some of the leading vendors, such as UiPath’s online academy.
Governance is equally important if you really want to scale automation. You don’t need it to start necessarily, but I would recommend creating an operating model for the agency that integrates decision making by a steering committee, an automation pipeline from the business, standards and security from IT, and a functioning Center of Excellence (CoE) that can build, deploy, and support automations. It sounds like a lot, but it’s really just a model that each agency should create to derive the greatest value from their RPA efforts.
RPA Today: Are the concerns of a state government different than the private sector or a federal agency when it comes to launching, maintaining or scaling an RPA program?
Krishna Edathil: I think large private enterprises might have different challenges implementing and scaling at enterprise level than a public entity. Most state agencies are required to follow very different processes, guidelines, and compliance compared to the private sector. For example, we must consider ethical AI aspects and compliance with IRS 1075 schism, NIST 800-53 standards and the Texas Administrative Code.
RPA Today: What steps do you take within your organization to make implementation or problem solving easier?
Krishna Edathil: The first thing I recommend is to work with agency executives to make automation a strategic goal for the agency. More simply, I can ask the agency to align with the State Strategic Plan for Information Resources, a statewide plan produced by DIR that has set automation as an objective. With that executive commitment and buy-in, IT and the business can work together to find the right technology and support to execute against that vision.
The key to implementing with RPA includes finding the right processes early that have limited complexity but will deliver high value if automated. Focus on these processes first, prove the benefits of the technology. Also, identify staff who are willing to learn RPA and start training them up.
Then, take your early successes and use those to begin compiling a pipeline of potential automation projects within the agency. Calculate the value you will get from automating those processes in terms of time saved, accuracy, compliance, employee satisfaction, and improved service, and then determine the value of the work your employees will perform with the time that is saved. Having this data available will make your investment decisions much easier.
Finally, as you begin to implement your automations and scale, create a model for your agency that supports scaling RPA across divisions. A key aspect of this model is to measure the results to ensure you are earning the return you expected.
RPA Today: Have state employees or unions expressed any reservations about automation and job security? If so, how do you respond to them?
Krishna Edathil: Like with any new technology, change management actions like education, communication, and training are necessary to overcome barriers to adoption. Building an operating model with executive buy-in and leveraging a CoE with support from the business will help you build an RPA program designed to improve workers’ efficiency and make their jobs much less tedious and repetitive.
I do not know of any public sector jobs in Texas eliminated by RPA. People are seeing that RPA reduces our work to that which is most important for a human to do – whether it’s spending more time with constituents, problem solving with co-workers, or strategizing with leadership.
RPA Today: What’s your best piece of advice for our readers about RPA whether they are just starting or trying to scale?
Krishna Edathil: It’s like swimming. You must be in the pool, so just jump in. Take a simple use case and try it out. There are community editions of RPA platforms you can download and plenty of forums and technical support to help answer your questions. YouTube is a great resource for accessing videos demoing many RPA use cases. Also, the vendor community is eager to help and can offer advice on how and where to begin your RPA efforts.
Accelerate your proof of concept to production by taking advantage of the Technology Today Series, Technology Showcase, and deep dive, hands-on work sessions and complimentary training organized by DIR in the AI/RPA. The soon to be launched AI Center of Excellence also would greatly help beginners.
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