While using technology to automate public-sector processes can be one of the most straightforward paths to improved efficiency, being sure to lay the right groundwork and knowing your agency’s ultimate goals are key.
Automation has become synonymous with efficiency, and as agencies across the public sector strive to “do more with less,” it’s become a pervasive and important part of the digitization process. But starting from a faulty foundation often sets organizations up for failure and leaves them with costly technology that doesn’t meet expectations over the long term.
Most organizations are not inherently prepared for extensive automation. They must first build the infrastructure by optimizing current workflows and processes, defining desired business outcomes, and establishing baseline metrics to benchmark performance against. When these are overlooked in a rush to automate, the investment rarely fulfills its intended purpose — to give your organization a competitive advantage.
How do you avoid this fate? The following are common pitfalls that lead to automation fails in government agencies.
One of the primary reasons automation projects fail is because automation is usually applied to existing workflows and processes that have already proven inefficient. When the ultimate goal is greater speed, efficiency and quality, the underlying root cause of the problem creating the inefficiency in the first place must be examined.
Diligent documentation of existing workflows and processes should always precede automation. This provides a visual for analyzing abstract workflows to determine where there are inefficiencies or opportunities to eliminate redundancies or unnecessary steps, help you prioritize the areas to automate first, and avoid the disappointment of getting more of the same even after investing in automation tools.
This was the case for one construction licensing agency in Arizona that had already been using cloud-based software to help manage its 40,000 active licenses and 7,000 complaint investigations annually. Though they were managing to keep pace, they knew they could be getting more out of their system because they were still feeling the pains so many government agencies experience: The ratio of demand to available resources was continuing to grow more imbalanced.
They decided to take a step back and approach automation different this time around. Applying the process improvement principles of Lean Six Sigma, they focused on eliminating waste and defects and reducing variation first. But this meant they needed to collect data so they could better understand the current system and processes, the needs and requirements, the cause-and-effect relationship between processes and outcomes, and the stakeholder point of view. This meant documenting, in detail, every step required in core workflows.
Mapping their existing “as-is” state positioned them to identify what would be needed to achieve their desired or “to-be” state.
Automation has to be tied to clearly defined business outcomes and key performance indicators (KPIs) for several reasons. One, it communicates to all stakeholders, particularly the leadership team, how it will deliver value and impact overall business performance. Two, it enables your team to track the efficacy and ROI of the automation over time.
In the case of the construction licensing agency, as they were documenting processes, they simultaneously collected metrics such as:
By doing this, they were able to see where they needed to make improvements, set more specific goals and metrics, and then track their performance against those. Going through this process, they estimated they saved 6,000 hours of data entry, application review, document scanning, workflow assignments and notifications per year. They also saw a 35 percent decrease in application deficiencies and improved customer satisfaction scores.
But to gather these metrics, you have to involve your stakeholders –– something this agency did from the beginning. Which leads to the next common pitfall to be avoided.
Automation shouldn’t be treated as another initiative –– it’s a cultural shift and therefore must involve all of your stakeholders. The most successful automation implementations involve stakeholders at all levels, from leadership to frontline workers to customers. This not only helps avoid the responsibility of automation falling squarely on one team’s shoulders and instead makes it a companywide priority, it also ensures you get the expertise and input of all stakeholders to realize the full potential of automation and avoid potential issues down the road.
One potential downstream issue is the duplication of efforts and inconsistent standards across various teams and departments. Silos are just a fact of business, and when automation is isolated, you run the risk of teams re-creating their own automations and applying their own standards. But in most cases, automated assets created for one process, workflow or team can often be replicated in other scenarios to reduce waste and technical debt.
Keeping pace with rapidly evolving technology and advancements in automation is an unavailing battle. What looks most promising today may be obsolete tomorrow. Though customized and highly specialized tools may look promising, they don’t always make business sense, particularly for organizations operating in compliance-heavy structures. They’re often extremely expensive to build, requiring a massive investment up front that can be difficult to recoup, and they don’t offer as much flexibility as systems that are built to be configurable.
Customizable solutions are also difficult and costly to manage, maintain and update. If adequate budget is not built in to maintain these updates, these assets can quickly lose crucial functionality and become unusable. Additionally, you may run the risk of these systems not being compatible with other necessary legacy technologies.
For the construction licensing agency, there were three possible paths they were considering: go fully customized, use an out-of-the-box solution or go with a configurable system that was ultimately a hybrid of the first two options. They opted for the configurable system, built on Salesforce, which enabled them to customize certain components to their specific needs while taking advantage of built-in workflows that enabled them to get this stood up in their organization quickly.
In choosing a configurable system, however, you want one that comes with a proven track record of success and compliance adherence specific to the public sector, is forward compatible, meaning it’s built with the future in mind, and that is easy to update and maintain –– even by non-technical staff.
Though automation is one of the most effective tools in the efficiency toolbox, it is often one of the most misunderstood and misused. The reason it worked for the construction licensing agency is because they focused first on building a structured framework that took into account current processes and deficiencies, stakeholder needs and inputs, and baseline metrics. Following in these footsteps will ensure your organization is automating the right processes for the right reasons at the right time.
Brian Kirby is the director of strategic solutions at MST Solutions. He has nearly two decades' experience in process improvement working for organizations across the financial and public-sector industries. He formerly served as CIO and chief of licensing for one of the leading state agencies in Arizona.
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