Defra demonstrates the value of the automation center of excellence – Natural Self Esteem

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The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has laid a foundation for scaling automations to support digital transformation, writes David Burrows, public sector industry leader at UiPath

Many public sector organizations have begun to adopt robotic process automation, responding to the promise of greater efficiency and a significant advance in digital transformation.

But many need to reap the benefits even faster, and are looking for ways to accelerate the effort with a service design that can be quickly replicated across the organization while accommodating the needs of individual processes.

Defra is becoming something of a pioneer, as the creation of its Digital Robotic Automation Center of Excellence has been the impetus for expanding the technology since its inception in 2020.

Defra Services Owner Dave More says his interest was sparked by HM Revenue and Customs’ success with automation, and his innovation team wanted to explore the potential for the department to address two major challenges; Coping with a high volume of work with limited resources; and eliminating the need for employees to port data from one legacy application to another.

Although the Defra Group is made up of a number of agencies, there are common processes – such as billing and enforcement – that lead them to envisage a ‘unique national’ approach to their modernisation.

National once approach

“The idea was that if you’re a large organization that’s geographically dispersed, your ‘once national’ services might have a strong understanding of what they’re doing,” says More. “Hopefully they would have one version of the truth rather than many versions for the back office.”

In 2017-18, a proof of concept for automation was conducted at the Environment Agency, showing that a robot in the back office could complete a task 16 times in three minutes, compared to two times for a lone worker, and with a higher level of reliability .

A large-scale, relatively complex process for obtaining environmental permits and licenses ensued, demonstrating that a process that took hours could be reduced to minutes.

This has led Defra to invest over £1million in creating the UiPath powered Center of Excellence as an internal resource to make new deployments faster and cheaper whilst maintaining high quality.

It established 11 service design principles for the use of automation in Defra Group, of which More emphasizes the importance of two. Firstly, it is not assumed that the colleagues in the group business units can tell the automation specialists everything they need to know the first time; It often takes re-evaluation and iteration to get things right.

The second is the recognition of the importance of managing data quality and accuracy, resulting in a low-risk build-out approach where solutions are deployed in a high oversight mode until validated by business partners.

rest points

More highlights the pause points in this mode for a hypothetical back-office process. The first comes after an email instruction to a generic mailbox, with the robot prompting the user to verify that all relevant tasks have been identified.

When the user has validated this and entered the data into a SharePoint file, the robot prompts them to verify the information before handing it off to a legacy system, after which the robot prompts the user to verify the information again before sending it fed to a downstream system. Finally, it prompts the user to review the content of an email notification before it goes to the citizen.

“We have this ‘live review’ status with high oversight until we’ve seen a record go through the process and the company confirms that the robot is trustworthy, then we can go through the process, remove the pause points and it put it in a lower oversight,” says Mehr.

According to More, a number of important lessons have emerged from the work of the Defra Competence Center to date. One is to get business users to think of robots as newcomers to a team, raising their hands to ask for help like human workers.

Others need to recognize that the resulting data entry has downstream consequences; that initial “live proving” deployments, where a robot pauses to ask the user to review their work before submitting it, can yield a quick return on investment; that this approach negates the need for traditional user acceptance testing; and that it is possible to remove the pause points from the process once the robot is trusted.

basis for the transformation

This approach has laid the groundwork for an expansion of Defra Group’s business process automation and reflects the ability to take a step-by-step approach to digital transformation rather than investing heavily in large replacement systems.

Automation can accelerate the digital journey in three key areas: by transforming operational processes and integrating service management with other systems; transforming the citizen experience through more self-service; and transformation of business models through the integration of new and existing systems. The latter can be combined with machine learning and artificial intelligence capabilities to create new value propositions in service delivery.

It is one of the Central Digital and Data Office’s seven key principles for the management of legacy technology that it should be subject to continuous improvement planning to keep it current and that it should allow room for transformation through a range of changes, rather than a “rip and replace” approach.

This makes automation a key tool in modernizing public services, and Defra’s example shows that it is possible to build a strong in-house capability to accelerate potential.

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