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State, Local Agencies Automate to Drive Efficiency in Pandemic

Two state departments and one major California county have turned to robotic process automation as a way to free employees from low-value tasks and accomplish work more efficiently during the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

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With large numbers of employees forced to telework by California's March 19 stay-at-home order and staff time stretched thin by the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, some state and local governments are moving quickly into automation.

At a moment when around 3.1 million Californians have applied for state unemployment benefits, the underlying issue isn’t eliminating jobs — a point Los Angeles County Deputy Chief Information Officer Jagjit Dhaliwal emphasized in a conversation with Techwire.

“It is about how we can make our employees’ role more efficient, because these employees have a specific expertise and they should be focusing on the work related to that expertise,” Dhaliwal said.

The automation landscape will continue to evolve, but here is what three state and county departments are doing to work more efficiently during the crisis:

California Correctional Health Care Services (CCHCS) partnered with vendor UiPath to stand up the Dr. YODA bot, an attended bot used to enhance so-called cross-encounter reconciliation — the process of ensuring previous patient orders and histories follow inmates and are applied to visits with new physicians. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, the agency that includes CCHCS, sees about 11,000 inmate transfers a month — and previously, each incoming patient required about 100 clicks of a mouse to complete the transfer.

CCHCS developed its bot in-house after sending two developers to UiPath’s academy, where they obtained an advanced certification. Their robotic process automation (RPA) bot build took about four months and automated 95 percent of the process, enabling doctors to see more patients and freeing them up from mundane, low-value tasks. Doctors are still involved, taking the controls in around four instances — to input patient numbers and choose records to be included, and then selecting the command to move a record over. But virtually all other typing is done by the bot. Dr. YODA is now being deployed to roughly 2,800 doctors, with the goal of scaling it to pharmacists.

“This is a good example of an attended bot working, augmenting a human-in-the-loop scenario,” Molly Fitzgerald, UiPath account manager for state and local government, told Techwire. Fitzgerald was among UiPath and state officials who discussed RPA during the company’s Public Sector Hyperautomation Summit webinar March 26.

• The California Department of Motor Vehicles worked with UiPath, Cambria Solutions and SimpliGov to automate its application process for Motor Carrier Permits (MCP). The department handles around 50,000 MCP transactions annually, and each application took a technician roughly 20 minutes to process. The partners developed a bot in less than two months and sent it into production in February, with exception processing built in. SimpliGov helped test the bot and assists DMV on the back end. The bot has already increased user experience, sped up processing and improved data quality, Suresh Ashani, Cambria senior manager, said during the webinar. Up next is automating DMV’s driver’s license extension process. That endeavor began in March, and within five days, developers were able to stand up an automation bot using UiPath and an online version of the form using SimpliGov’s platform.

• Technology is playing a “really important role” for Los Angeles County, where its Human Resources and Internal Services (ISD) departments worked with several vendors to enable telework for 110,000 employees, standing up an online portal and virtual call center to answer questions and resolve issues. The county has also explored RPA during the past two years and held educational awareness sessions on it with all departments before the pandemic made the process more urgent. Now, working with UiPath, Dhaliwal said L.A. County is within days or weeks of standing up solutions that can automate time-consuming, repetitive aspects of its healthcare processes such as form intake and acquiring and reading electronic forms.

Governments’ goal shouldn’t necessarily be immediate 100 percent automation, the deputy CIO said — but rather, creating something that may begin by automating 40 percent or more of a process, then iterate on that to increase. Volume, he said, helps ensure a win, citing the example of saving 5,000 minutes by automating a one-minute process that a bot will repeat 5,000 times.

The plan, Dhaliwal said, is for him to eventually work with ISD to create “kind of a factory-based model” for RPA wherein a few employees — already being trained — can build solutions to answer departments’ automation needs.

“Crisis is always the mother of invention,” he said, adding: “We can always carry forward the good things that are coming out of this crisis situation.”

Theo Douglas is Assistant Managing Editor of Techwire.