Bots Help Government Tackle COVID-19 Challenges

By Dave Zielinski April 27, 2020
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​The war against the coronavirus is being fought with science, social distancing, health care … and bots, software applications that run repetitive tasks over the Internet. Public-sector agencies are programming bots to speed the collection and analysis of data about coronavirus infection rates, transform paper-based procurement processes into digital ones, and help employees conduct business when in-person contact is no longer an option.

SHRM Resource Spotlight
Coronavirus and COVID-19

Robotic Process Automation in the Public Sector

Federal agencies are deploying robotic process automation (RPA) to overcome process or administrative hurdles. The General Services Administration (GSA) used the technology—which automates manual, repetitive tasks through the use of bots—to help track the spread of COVID‑19 in counties across the United States where the GSA has buildings.

Jim Walker, director of public-sector services for UiPath, a New York-based RPA platform provider, said the GSA used bots to gather and update COVID-19 infection data when agency employees became overwhelmed as infection counts rapidly rose. Walker said the GSA has trained about 50 of its employees in the use of RPA to create bots for the agency.

In another case, a government agency in Ireland used RPA to help process the burgeoning number of unemployment benefit claims. When laid-off workers submit an unemployment claim, a bot conducts optical character recognition on data and determines where a person has been employed. When employment and benefits eligibility are confirmed, the bot can deposit benefit funds directly into employee bank accounts.

The U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) deployed a bot to check on employees working from home. "Previously, the CMS would send out e-mails to confirm the health and welfare of its remote workers but would receive many thousands of e-mails a day in return," Walker said. "A small CMS team was tasked with reviewing those e-mails and creating regular status reports, but it became hard to keep up."

CMS deployed a bot that automatically checks the databases employees regularly access to perform their work. If an employee hasn't logged on for a specified period of time, the bot triggers a welfare check, Walker said.

Creating and Deploying Bots

Experts say RPA platforms can often be quickly installed. Because many basic RPA bots are of the "no-code" or "low-code" variety—meaning they require little or no software coding skills but rather, they function in drag-and-drop fashion—they often can be created, tested and rolled out in a matter of weeks, depending on the use case.

But experts say RPA platforms still require enterprise-grade security protections and the oversight of a designated team to manage bot development and deployment across the organization.

"If the automation challenge is COVID‑19-related, you don't have months or in some cases even weeks to get automation in place," said Keith Nelson, senior director of public-sector services for Automation Anywhere, an RPA platform provider in Arlington, Va. "Organizations often need immediate relief. In the case of HR, once a bot is created, users often simply have to send an e‑mail with a specified subject line to a certain address to activate it. In many cases, there's no need for any coding."

Automation Anywhere recently partnered with Microsoft to create a bot to help process COVID‑19 case forms for the National Health Service in the United Kingdom. Nelson said the initiative was in response to a directive from the World Health Organization to collect clinical data and case forms for coronavirus patients to identify infection trends more quickly.

Expanding Uses of RPA

Some government agencies have turned to bots to help them with onboarding. In this use, RPA can be programmed to verify a candidate's information, fill in and process new-hire forms, transfer that information into HR databases, send required paperwork to new hires, and help provision equipment such as laptops.

HR and IT functions are using automation for such tasks as creating and distributing remote-working agreements for employees, and transforming emergency funding requests from paper to digital formats.

"Many government agencies didn't have work-from-home agreements or support response agreements until COVID‑19 hit," said Steve Witt, director of public sector for Nintex, a Seattle-based automation and process management company. "Many procurement and other processes had been conducted on paper before, where people would sign forms and hand them off to HR or to a manager."

HR functions are also using no-code automation platforms to quickly create digital forms for such tasks as tracking essential employees coming to and leaving work. For example, to track exposure and risk to employees, the forms might sit on a kiosk at a reception desk and request details about where employees have recently traveled.

"If HR needs to quickly build out a digital form, they can do it without requiring support from IT," Witt said. "That's helpful during the COVID crisis because IT is often scrambling to keep up with the technical-support demands of employees now working from home."

Companies also are using RPA with popular collaboration platforms like Microsoft Teams and Slack to create new efficiencies for work-at-home employees. Bots can be programmed to perform tasks like automatically updating a worker’s Slack status so teammates know when they won’t be at their desks or to automatically distribute notes to work groups following conference calls.

There are concerns that RPA will replace HR or IT jobs after the COVID‑19 crisis begins to recede. Experts say that, to date, the technology more often has replaced tasks, not entire jobs.

"A government employee might have 50 things to do every day but can only get to 40 of them," Walker said. "If you can automate those 10 tasks with bots, you haven't taken a job away but rather helped that worker do his or her job more efficiently."

Dave Zielinski is a freelance business writer and editor in Minneapolis.

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