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Virtual Robots Innovate Montgomery County, Md., Government

The county has been implementing UiPath robotic process automation for the past 18 months to increase staff productivity and morale, improve customer service and streamline business workflows.

Each morning, a Montgomery County, Md., employee boots up their computer, logs onto an online software system and activates a robot to download liquor credit card receipts from 25 stores. A task that used to take the staffer 20 minutes to complete is now finished in three minutes.

About 18 months ago, the Department of Finance used an IT commodity contract to purchase three licenses from UiPath, a company specializing in robotic process automation (RPA). So far, county staff have taught the robots four data entry workflows, which has resulted in significant time and money savings for the agency. The three licenses annually cost about $5,400 total.

Earlier this month, the National Association of Counties (NACo) honored the Department of Finance with an information technology achievement award for its deployment of RPA. NACo spokesman Paul Guequierre said the RPA in Montgomery County is a shining example of government innovation.

Information Technology Chief Jhason Abuan said his department decided to send off a submission for an award after experiencing a great deal of success with RPA.

“The fact that we had the insight to look at things that we were doing in-house and asking the question ‘Is there a better, faster and cheaper way to do this while also reducing errors?’” Abuan said. “The side benefit is that we free up people’s time, their morale goes up, they can do other things, like professional development, or do something else related to their job that brings them some satisfaction because at the end of the day someone that does data entry all the time, that can get a little mundane.”

The two robots complete tasks sequentially and are first trained with screenshots for each step of the process they are meant to automate, he said. To date, they have reduced an estimated 1,000-hour record update to about 40 hours; an eight-hour, 230-screen payroll system holiday addition to 20 minutes; and 12,000-15,000 annual property tax refunds from one refund per two to three minutes to one per 10 seconds.

“You want to pick a workflow that is well defined, that doesn’t have too many complex branches and is something that is done every single day,” Abuan said. “Typically, you want to go with that route when selecting what task to automate.”

The robots exist in a virtual environment that staff log on to, which allows for a small physical footprint and the agency has experienced a high return on their annual RPA investment. The licenses are a cheaper solution than designing a program in-house, he said.

“If you had done it from a programming perspective I think it would be very difficult to do, unless you have a programming background, and probably very expensive because programmers can be expensive,” Abuan said.

UiPath Public Sector Marketing Director Jim Walker said his company’s product allows employees to complete higher-value work while the robot tackles data entry.

“On every car I’ve been in lately every one of them has a cruise control. That cruise control is your RPA. It’s available today, it’s cheap and inexpensive and it’s simple to train,” Walker said. “Let that person move on to something a person can do and not a bot.”

Walker said Montgomery County is the first local government to implement the UiPath RPA to a vast extent.

Abuan said he is impressed by the UiPath robots’ simplicity and the professional development and customer service opportunities they afford to staff.

“I think in general, the county runs very, very lean. I think that most of the folks are utilized 100 percent or more and I see RPA bringing that utilization to what should be ‘normal,’” he said. “I think it’s an opportunity for having some breathing room to look at professional development because most of the employees, from my perspective, are being utilized highly, which leaves little time to professional development and that is something I think is important for one to have as you progress through your career.”

A byproduct of automating a workflow is agencies can review business processes as they go through the steps that they’d like the software to learn. This creates a chance for refinement and simplification before the robot is put to work, he said.

“I think there are going to be a lot of great efficiencies that we’re going to start to see across the board,” he said.

Other Montgomery County agencies showed interest in applying RPA after a UiPath presentation this week, specifically the Office of Human Resources and the Department of Health and Human Services, Abuan said. The Finance Department would simply need to provide them with credentials to log onto the virtual machine so the robots could be trained in a new workflow, he said.

“It’ll get to a point where there are so many workflows that there will need to be some orchestration that needs to be done,” he said. “I would think as an example if you have a robot running a workflow and the output of that workflow will need to be the input of another workflow that’s where the orchestration needs to occur. That’s another layer of software that UiPath has, but we’re not there, yet. I would assume that as we get more adoptions our environment may get more complicated.”

Patrick Groves was a staff writer for Government Technology from 2019 to 2020.