Business Process Automation (BPA) in Revenue
BPA or technology-enabled automation of rules based business processes was identified as an opportunity to streamline the operational business of the Organisation, to achieve simplicity, improve service delivery and reduce costs. The innovation engages BPA to digitally transform workflows from conventional data manipulation and record-keeping functions, to efficient automated systems. BPA has benefitted front line staff, where the burden of processes has transferred from humans to technology.
In early 2016, as part of the Civil Service Reform agenda, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform began exploring how Business Process Automation (BPA) could improve processes across the Civil Service. The Management Information Services (MIS) team in Revenue decided that this represented a significant opportunity for the Organisation as service delivery is built on complex business processes. The team became one of four Government bodies tasked with investigating the capabilities of BPA in the civil service.
The innovation is the automation of complex business processes using robotic technology to achieve simpler work flows, better service delivery and to engage front line staff in more challenging and fruitful employment.
Following a strong commitment from a small unit, incorporating intensive up-skilling on robotic software and analysis of many business processes across the Organisation, opportunities for improvements were identified. Solutions were built achieving significant efficiencies.
At the outset, it was envisaged the initiative would be confined to the Collector General’s Division in Revenue. However, as the opportunities presented across the Organisation the remit of the team expanded. Buy-in was sought and secured from the IT Board of Revenue to ensure strong governance and to progress the initiative on a greater scale. Since then, savings have been realised in other Revenue Divisions, while the initiative continues to gain traction.
The vision is to digitally transform all conventional business processes in the Irish civil service using BPA technology. To institutionalise BPA into the fabric of the Irish public service, it is necessary to build the perception of technology-enabled automation as the tool of first preference to apply to operational processes.
For instance, promotion and recruitment is a cornerstone of any large Organisation. Within the public sector the procedures are designed and governed to deliver results and achieve transparency. While campaigns to recruit and promote are tailored to achieve the best results there is little variation between the work flows engaged to facilitate the process. This describes one of the projects developed as part of the Revenue BPA agenda; BPA has been successfully employed to process thousands of applications to support recruitment and promotion campaigns. Scale within the Organisation has been achieved and this is now the accepted tool of first preference to facilitate such campaigns.
The processes engaged to support recruitment and promotion transcend the boundaries of Government offices. Already, work has begun to transfer the BPA technology to one other office. The potential for scale is to digitally transform the processing of all recruitment applications across the public sector in a manner that is both low-cost and agile in its adaptability.
This represents one example of how the BPA Agenda will scale and become institutionalised across the Irish public sector. The Revenue team have become mentors and advisors to Government colleagues with the aim of driving the digital transformation
What Makes Your Project Innovative?
To remain relevant, Organisations are required to adapt to changing markets; the public sector is no different. This happens by aligning processes to the realities of the new digital economy. In reality, this means leveraging digital tools to create better channels of productivity. Our project is defined by these terms, engaging advanced robotic tools to build better and smarter work processes; a transformation of service delivery which takes talent, experience and innovation.
Innovation in this context relates to the development of new and better solutions and is underpinned by experimentation. Before we built smarter work flows, we explored the potential as a pilot group led by the Civil Service Renewal Programme; as a group we introduced BPA to the Irish civil service. Within our own Organisation we introduced a new and different innovation, by applying digital technology to deliver positive change
What is the current status of your innovation?
The status of the innovation could be categorised as any of “Implementation”, “Evaluation” or “Diffusing Lessons”. The innovation phases suggested best describe an innovation project with a set time frame and structure. Our innovation has evolved and has already begun to scale. What began as a pilot programme based on exploration has become an established tool to deliver smart solutions. We have evaluated and diffused lessons from each individual project to build the BPA capacity in Revenue.
Currently, 26BPA processes have been delivered, 1 under development, and a further 3 work flows are being examined for suitability. Governance requirements are being finalised to ensure BPA supports Revenue’s wider IT architecture and does not embed as stand-alone functionality. Communities of practice have been established across Government offices. Our team have begun to provide expertise and mentor our public sector colleagues to scale solutions we have delivered in our own Organisation.
Collaborations & Partnerships
We partnered with Government officials based in other offices across the public sector engaged in BPA projects. Initially as pilot groups, we collaborated in driving the Civil Service Reform Agenda. Over time, a community of practice was built, as we worked through technical challenges and established a network of valuable shared learning and support.
Users, Stakeholders & Beneficiaries
There are different sets of stakeholders for every process identified for BPA. We have secured engagement of the operational teams and their direct management teams by offering solutions, and secured their confidence through diplomacy and delivery of results. This group are also users and beneficiaries as human capital is redistributed to more rewarding employment. Indirectly, citizens benefit from better and smarter service delivery from their tax administration.
Results, Outcomes & Impacts
Success is measured by the resource saving, the level of risk mitigated and the potential adaptability of the process within Revenue and beyond.
The three completed projects (Competition Process, Local Property Tax Process and Inward Processing Unit Process) to date have resulted in resource savings of approx. 150-200 FTE days per annum, with a fourth nearing completion, expected to yield further savings of 100 FTE days. The risk of human error with highly sensitive data has been eliminated and each project has yielded the potential to adapt new approaches to other manual processes within Revenue and to duplicate these to similar projects across the wider public sector.
What started as a “proof of concept” of BPA within Revenue has already delivered significant success in its first year but will deliver on-going and greater benefits into the future, resulting in multiples of the resource savings already achieved.
Challenges and Failures
The greatest challenge related to upskilling and time management as this innovation was delivered by a team who already had a comprehensive business plan to execute. Nobody on the team worked exclusively on the BPA agenda, but instead managed their workloads to accommodate this significant undertaking. The approach taken was proactive, committed and intense with a vision of building skills from within the Organisation rather than buying in expertise. The level of formal up-skilling necessary required a significant commitment from individual team members. Skills were built collaboratively through hard work and intensive research.
Since inception, securing buy-in has been a consistent feature of the BPA programme. Without the support of officials from all levels of the Organisation, BPA would not have taken hold. Some projects were met with more resistance than others. However, our response was to build solutions through co-creation with the front line, which has yielded result.
Conditions for Success
A large established public sector Organisation such as Revenue does not enjoy digital agility. The IT infrastructure has evolved through decades of manipulation and upgrading, and faces many legacy challenges in the face of the digital transformation. For the BPA agenda to succeed, automations need to be configured and managed within an IT governed framework. It is not an alternative to conventional systems developments, but adds value by complementing and supporting the structures already in place.
BPA tools enable business operations to be agile and efficient through rapid automation of rules based administrative processes. Strong leadership and governance is required to ensure that the agility and flexibility is not exploited i.e. that the innovation is not used to automate poor processes, but is used to digitally transform conventional channels of work, such as rules based administrative tasks through automation. BPA will not rectify poorly designed work processes.
Following initial successes, advice and guidance has been provided to other Government bodies to drive the Civil Service Reform Agenda. For example, the team have engaged with a central Government office “the Houses of the Oirechtas” to replicate the Revenue recruitment and promotion campaign model. Workforce planning across all Government offices face similar issues in respect of such campaigns, with prohibitive cost associated with building new systems to facilitate them. The work carried out in Revenue presents a viable alternative, which is scalable and transferable. The team have also work with a Regional Municipal Government Office to guide them through BPA process selection.
Finally, the centralised Office of Government Procurement have visited the team to achieve a greater understanding of how to build BPA capabilities on wider scale. The cost saving of building internal capability to the level achieved in Revenue was discussed as a blue print for future developments.
1. Automate the simplest processes first
Skills and expertise are built through experience. There is greater scope for learning if an incremental approach is taken. We began with short processes executed by one or two front line officials. This approach worked well for our team.
2. Define BPA for your Organisation
In most larger Organisations there is a waiting list for systems developments. We learned that BPA could be applied to many of these requirements, which to the end user would yield the same result as a conventional systems development. Integrating a strong BPA capability to the Organisation requires a robust method of selecting appropriate processes. Poor governance in this regard could lead to over-automation which conflicts with core IT strategy.
Systems developments are often the best solution. However, in some cases these developments will be prohibitively expensive or consistently fall to the end of the prioritisation list. A balance must be struck in an Organisation to determine which processes are suitable to apply BPA and which should be developed into the wider core systems. This will be defined by the prominence of BPA in the Organisation’s IT strategic vision.
3. Business Analysis
We learned that in our Organisation the contribution of BPA is enhanced through autonomy and exploration. Our team consider the potential of BPA for many processes. The approach is to begin with a detailed analysis of what it is that we want to automate, to explore, analyse, suggest and recommend how the process can be improved without any obligation to apply BPA. This yields results in process selection, and also ensures other technological solutions have not been overlooked.
BPA is asserting itself as a disruptive force within large process-orientated organisations presently. The Team’s proactive engagement with this technology represents a significant innovative success. The full benefits are yet to materialise as work to identify appropriate processes to implement BPA continues. Asides from quantifiable metrics the success should be measured in terms of innovative advancement – the underlying technology has been proven in the private sector to be a key enabler in reducing costs and improving accuracy.