A new kind of automation can make civil service backlogs a thing of the past

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Written by Yatin Mahandru, Head of Public Sector and Health UK & , Gooty Agraharam, Market Leader, Cognizant

As the civil service is once again tasked to do more with less, intelligent process automation can eliminate backlogs and delays – delivering a faster, better citizen experience.

There’s never a good time to do more with less, but for senior civil servants, now probably feels like an especially bad one. With departmental backlogs making headlines and the 2021 census hinting at more population growth to come, the civil service may feel it needs more staff, not fewer.

In a recent Digital Leaders webinar, we proposed a solution: one that private sector companies are already using to increase speed and efficiency while also improving their digital customer experience. 

Intelligent Process Automation (IPA) is the exponentially smarter cousin of Robotic Process Automation (RPA). It’s how banks are able to settle complex transactions and make lending decisions in seconds – while at the same time decreasing their risk. And its how pharma companies were able to fast-track COVID-19 vaccine trials without compromising on rigour or safety. 


How can Intelligent Process Automation clear backlogs?

Without getting too technical, IPA is a smart way of automating processes – like assessing health insurance claims or fulfilling complex orders, to allow them to be completed much faster.

Traditionally, in these types of processes, data from multiple sources has to be gathered and evaluated before a human expert makes a decision – on whether to approve a grant, for example, or pay out on a claim. While that’s happening, the customer has to wait, often getting more and more frustrated as days turn into weeks. 

What causes those delays? One roadblock is getting the right data together. When files and data are stored in different systems, across different departments or organisations, pulling it all together can take a lot of time. Some or even most of it is usually done manually, with people emailing each other spreadsheets and documents that then have to be assembled, cleaned and validated. 

The second blocker is getting expert eyes on it. At times of surging demand, there often just aren’t enough experts to go round. When that happens, applications or cases mount up in experts’ inboxes, and decisions that are normally made in weeks don’t get made for months. If a headcount freeze – or worse, headcount cuts – intervene to prevent more staff being taken on, backlogs can persist for years.


How Intelligent Process Automation works

Intelligent process automation cuts through these issues, using a combination of data optimisation, automated workflows, artificial intelligence or machine learning, and low-code/no-code platforms. 

Data optimisation ensures clean, validated data can be pulled at the right time from back-end systems. Automated workflows ensure the right process steps are taken in the right order, with no bottlenecks or holdups. AI/ML either recommends a decision to the human expert, or creates a list of exceptions for the expert to investigate. And low-code and no-code platforms make it easy to design apps and websites where customers can easily submit their application or request and get updates on its progress.

Some of this will sound familiar, as the civil service has made great strides in two areas in particular. Thanks in part to the National Data Strategy, barriers to data-sharing are coming down, speeding up cross-departmental access to the data needed to make decisions. And there’s been great investment in the digital citizen experience, with portals like GOV.UK making it much simpler for citizens to access the services they need.


A fast car stuck in traffic

What’s mostly missing is the middle bit: the automated workflows and AI- or ML-driven decision-making. Or, if you like, the “Process” element from the classic “People, Process and Technology” trifecta. 

Today, many processes are still reliant on people doing the right thing at the right time (and thus can grind to a halt if people are on holiday, off sick or too busy). And decisions are still made manually, by sifting through documents, data and forms before coming to a conclusion. 

When siloed data and stodgy manual processes sit behind a slick digital front end, it can feel to the customer like buying a Lamborghini or an Aston Martin and then getting stuck in traffic. The car is top-end, but for a truly exhilarating driving experience, the roads need to be too.

While there have been many promising pilots and pockets of innovation in government around intelligent process automation, they have been difficult to scale and operationalise. Resistance to change is always a factor, but IPA also has to fight against organisational and cultural issues. As a technology that cuts across departments and functions, it can often founder on the rocks of “that’s not my problem” and “I’m only responsible for this part.”


Where to start with Intelligent Process Automation

So, short of a National Process Strategy to complement the National Data Strategy, what’s the solution? One answer might be to pick something that is currently causing a lot of pain – either internally or for citizens – and define what the outcome would look like if that pain were taken away. That outcome then becomes the goal of the IPA project. 

Picking something that causes a lot of pain – like an application backlog – is a good way to get people aligned to the outcome and engaged with solving the issue. And when one process has been successfully automated, it then becomes easier to tackle more. Especially when the results speak for themselves – like the US health insurer that saved $40m through 600% faster claims processing, or the manufacturer that freed up 52,000 hours per month to spend on more value-added work.

This kind of bottom-up approach can be more successful than mandating process transformation from the top down, because people feel in control of the process and benefit directly from the pain being taken away. 


A partner for your Intelligent Process Transformation project

So, if you’re just starting out with intelligent process automation, if you’ve done a pilot but hit a roadblock, or if you’re keen to get a stalled project back on track, we’d be happy to share our experience and advice. You can get in touch with us here or directly via LinkedIn InMail.

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