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Officials Say Automation Won’t Replace Humans

November 17, 2021 by Victoria Turner
(Photo by Alex Knight via Unsplash)

WASHINGTON — Automation will not replace people nor take their jobs, according to two government officials who are implementing robotic process automation programs at federal agencies. 

In fact, automation will allow federal employees to accomplish more than that they could have otherwise, said Gabrielle Perret, director of the Federal RPA Community of Practice at the automation division of the U.S. General Administration Services. Perret spoke during Tuesday’s Brookings Institution event entitled, “How robotic process and intelligent automation are remaking federal agencies.”  

Recently, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services was tasked by the Government Accountability Office to process 7 million pending applications for immigration cases by Sept. 30, said Meikle Paschal, Jr., program manager of RPA at USCIS. When USCIS got the directive, only 5 million of these applications had been processed with employees having to scan seven separate databases to ensure the accurate consolidation of data.  

“We had 2 million left and a little bit over a month to complete it,” he said, but having built an automation process within three weeks, they were able to process those 2 million cases in 90 minutes instead of the typical 16 months it would have taken to do so manually.  

Automation improves the services provided not only for citizens, but for federal employees as well, Perret said. Since its 2019 launch, she added, the RPA Community of Practice has increased to 1200 federal members, representing 65 federal agencies and bureaus.  

“Automation isn’t going to take your job. Automation is just connecting the data and the systems in a way that allows us to make better decisions at the end of the day,” Paschal explained, as it is based on a repeated process that can be replicated to free up federal employees’ time away and allow for critical thinking.  

“A lot of these systems are processing the same type of information. These automations are just making sure that it’s done consistently, so that [employees] don’t spend hours trying to solve a problem that might have been something that was typed in wrong,” he explained.  

This will further allow the agencies to prioritize their tasks, he added, as USCIS could choose to automate processes like the manual transcription of data from paper to digital. This is particularly important, he added, to the government’s modernization efforts to update its systems in its technical and digital transformation.  

“We need automation to bridge the gap” while the U.S. waits for this whole-of-government modernization, he explained. It can be a long-term solution to some processes, he said, or a “very powerful tool that can help you in the midterms while you’re still looking for that long-term solution.”  

Aside from the fear that automation may eliminate jobs, the other common concern is the security surrounding implementing RPA, both officials said. But the USCIS implemented governance that can be repeated and replicated across agencies, with the same security gates and the checks to make sure that their bots were being built responsibility, Paschal said. 

“If somebody were trying to do something nefarious, they’re going to find a way to do it, but they’re not going to do it through automation because we’ve locked down what that bot can do,” he charged. “Bots don’t make mistakes; they do what they’re programmed to do.”  

Victoria can be reached at [email protected] 

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