The border of Suffolk County, N.Y. is 30 miles east of Manhattan and the county stretches nearly 100 miles to Montauk at the island’s eastern tip. It comprises 10 towns and is home to nearly 1.5 million residents—the largest county in the state outside of New York City’s five boroughs.
The county government’s 25 different departments employ almost 10,000 people and operate under a budget in excess of $3 billion—two-thirds the budget of the entire state of Delaware. It is large, diverse, sophisticated and within easy driving distance of the largest city in the U.S. So, it has more in common with a thriving global enterprise than the stereotypical small and sleepy local government.
From Scott Mastellon’s position as the County Commissioner for Information Technology, it has many of the same challenges and opportunities facing tech leaders at the state level. Mastellon recently sat down with RPA Today to talk about using RPA and automation to solve some of those challenges in a public-sector setting.
RPA Today: You had your first automation. What are your plans to scale it across your enterprise? What challenges do you think stand in your way?
Scott Mastellon: The plan is to demonstrate, educate and communicate the capabilities of RPA to our users across the enterprise. We are currently evaluating every new project request that comes into the IT department to determine if RPA is appropriate and we have trained internal staff to supplement our contract vendor in support of RPA implementations. I believe that with concrete use cases to demonstrate and increase education across the County, we will identify a significant amount of opportunities to implement RPA.
One of our biggest initial challenges was educating our technical staff responsible for project implementation efforts. It was necessary to conduct internal demonstrations and hold dedicated discussions with IT department employees about the capabilities of RPA. As for future challenges, getting employees to give up their legacy processes is difficult. It is not uncommon for some employees to do the same task (or set of tasks) using the same technology (or lack of technology) for years and while it may be inefficient, they associate their jobs to these tasks and they feel that taking away the task will take away their job and for some, their identity. Employees will defend these inefficient legacy processes where one could suggest they have developed an unhealthy and unnatural emotional bond towards it – similar to Stockholm syndrome with the legacy process being their captor.
Joking aside, it’s a serious issue we can’t take lightly if we want to effectively implement RPA to automate these processes. We do try to explain, and where appropriate demonstrate, that there are plenty of other tasks they can do after we automate their existing tasks. This approach can be effective, but it does take some convincing. What makes it even more difficult is our current financial situation and the rumors around layoffs. The County went through a round of layoffs back in 2012 and many employees still remember that time and fear they will lose their jobs if their responsibilities are automated with technology.
RPA Today: Is this a business tool or a CIO technology tool or both? Why?
Scott Mastellon: I believe RPA is both a business tool and a CIO technology tool. As for a business tool, the ability to automate time consuming, painstaking and cumbersome tasks using automation provides significant benefits to the business. Automation will typically yield more accurate and timely results while requiring less staff to accomplish. As for it being a CIO technology, having RPA as an enterprise technology tool for the organization enables IT to provide improved services to our business users while at the same time identifying legacy processes that require technology modernization. Many candidates for RPA leverage older technology or do not leverage technology appropriately and by implementing RPA to automate these processes, we can also target these legacy technologies for modernization in the future.
RPA Today: RPA vendors say the tech produces fast, easy and strong ROI. Relative to other technologies would you agree with the value proposition of RPA and recommend it to other county governments?
Scott Mastellon: While I do believe there is a strong ROI, our initial experiences with automation have been cost avoidance opportunities. We have reallocated staff to work on more value-added activities. That being said, I do believe there will be opportunities to reduce staff costs through attrition as we expand our overall RPA program. I believe there is a strong value proposition for RPA and would recommend it to any government.
RPA Today: Do you think county governments and municipalities can benefit as much as (or even more than) larger organizations? Is RPA a more difficult sell for smaller entities? Or do the benefits of automation make it easier to spend resources on tech like this?
Scott Mastellon: My experiences working in government have shown there are a significant number of legacy-based technologies and processes that have been in place for years as well as a need to interact with many different systems at different levels of government.
While there may be some similarities in larger organizations, these characteristics present tremendous opportunities for RPA. As a County, we are required to interact with a number of state and federal systems across many departments and traditionally this has been done manually – i.e., entering data into multiple systems, creating duplicate systems for capturing additional requirements, and spending a significant amount of time reporting. Through automation, we can significantly reduce the amount of time spent working within these multiple systems and if automation processes are architected appropriately, we can increase the value of information obtained from the systems without adding additional staff time – which is not typically available anyway.
Now, Suffolk County is a $3 billion organization, so I wouldn’t consider us a smaller entity. But, I would think that smaller organizations, while limited in terms of funding, would also face staffing limitations and automation can significantly enhance staffing levels to improve business operations. I think the challenge with selling, whether it is to small or large organizations, private or public sector, is finding the right use cases to demonstrate and highlight as part of the sell. If the right set of use cases are presented to any organization, based upon its needs, I believe the technology can sell itself. That being said, every organization is different, so it is no small task to find the right set of use cases.
RPA Today: Where did you first hear of RPA and when did you think it was a viable goal for Suffolk County
Scott Mastellon: I first heard of RPA through a local vendor (SVAM). We had a meeting on AI and during the meeting, the vendor suggested that we look into RPA. When I first heard of it, to be honest, I didn’t truly understand the possibilities. It wasn’t until Covid hit and we were pressed with trying to come up with a solution to manage thousands of positive cases. We were manually pulling down data from a state system, and I began to understand the benefit.
Remembering our discussions on RPA, I called the vendor and asked them to come in and review our problem to determine if RPA was a possible solution. Within 10 days, we had the vendor contracted, UiPath purchased and installed and our first set of bots operational. With this first implementation, it was clear that RPA would provide significant benefits to the County.
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