This article was originally published on The Guardian and reproduced with permission from The Guardian.


From HMRC to local councils, an automation system known as RPA is transforming working practices. So what are the benefits of these bots?

North Tyneside council has hired an army of robots to speed up benefit claims. The robots are part of a system known as robotic process automation (RPA), which is helping North Tynesiders fill in forms while autonomously checking the applicants for fraud and processing their information quicker.

The council is using RPA to create an “intelligent” application, where a bot leads customers through the form and helps them to fill it in. A new type of fraud check uses algorithms to assess the fraud risk of an applicant. And because the information is captured digitally rather than written by hand, it could be automatically entered into the IT system, freeing up staff to interact with users rather than spending their time entering data.

Martin Ruane, programme director at Engie, the company that has helped implement the RPA project, says: “It was difficult for customers to get it right the first time and to provide all the correct proof.” He says it often took more than five contacts between the claimant and council office before the forms were completed. Using RPA has made the whole process much easier. “When it went live, we were starting to process all claims within the first day we received them,” he says. “We didn’t enact any job cuts, the system created capacity and we were able to direct staff to higher-value work.”

According to Engie, this is the first project of its kind for a local authority in the UK. It has led to a 50% reduction in time spent entering data, sped up the resolution of claims and reduced time taken to process new claims by 45%. Ruane believes RPA could revolutionise working across the public sector, with 20% of office-based processes ripe for the new system.

Since RPA first burst on to the scene around four years ago, it has been taken up by banks, financial services and other businesses. The technology is gradually being test-launched across central and local government and the NHS. Increasing productivity and releasing scarce clinical capacity is a strategic imperative, says Mike Donnellan, UK executive BPS leader at DXC Technology. “Without fundamental performance improvement we will not be able to build enough hospitals and hire enough clinicians to meet the accelerating demand on NHS resources. Automating non-clinical workload is one of the keys to freeing up the time of doctors and nurses to enable them to treat more patients, automating tasks such as solving bed blocking, processing patient data and the booking of appointments.”

RPA replicates the same tasks carried out by a human worker, but executes them far more quickly and accurately. The bot acts as a substitute for the human worker. It has a password to log on to a system, then goes through the same tasks a human worker carries out, such as opening a database and entering data from a spreadsheet. The bot can be programmed with rules to carry out a task, or it can learn the processes by replicating the keystrokes of a human worker and the screen positions they use to complete the work.

The great advantage of this approach is that the RPA bot can interact with any computer system, however old, just like a human does. This makes it especially useful for public service organisations that often use ageing legacy computer networks.

Another use of RPA is to help manage spikes and troughs in workloads. Ian MacGregor, vice president of sales at RPA system developer UiPath, gives the example of a government department that was facing a huge backlog of forms to process.

“The organisation was trying to throw more bodies at the backlog to try to reduce it. Then they put in robots and reduced the backlog of 30,000 cases down to zero in two and a half weeks,” he says.

In government, a department that has spearheaded development of RPA is HMRC, which is partnering with the Cabinet Office to spread automation across Whitehall. The tax office has tested RPA in a call centre, using it to automatically open files about customers when they ring in rather than waiting for the call handler to find the appropriate file. This has cut call times by an average of two minutes.

Information about calling customers is displayed on a dashboard. For one of the dashboards, advisers previously used 66 mouse-clicks to navigate different systems. Using RPA, this can be achieved in just 10 clicks.

HMRC says it has deployed 56 robotic automations with more than 15m transactions processed by robots. This has sped up processes between four to six times, reducing costs by up to 80% and cutting down call times by as much as 40%.

An HMRC spokesman said: “Increasingly, customers are choosing to interact with HMRC through digital channels. We are also transforming the way we work internally to support this. Robots are helping us remove tedious and repetitive tasks to free up our people for the more customer-facing aspects of their roles.”

For the NHS, creating a blended digital workforce in combination with highly trained clinical professionals is fundamental to its ability to meet rising demand. Donnellan adds: “Last year, there were 23 million attendances at A&E, up 23.5% in a decade. If we do nothing to address the productivity gap, spending on the NHS would need to consume more than 50% of total government expenditure.” According to Donnellan, “more than 20 NHS trusts have RPA deployed in a growing number of areas ranging from emergency admissions, patient record management, child immunisation, data messaging, patient discharging and outpatient administration. The pace of change has been gradual so far, but we are now seeing this accelerate.”

While much of the debate so far has centred on improving efficiency and accuracy in cash-strapped public services, the story is now pivoting to how RPA is allowing resource-constrained governments to do considerably more with the finite resources they have.