Opinion: The UK government’s big Robotics opportunity

‘There is exponential potential in the government’s Digital Strategy – but the right decisions must be made at an early stage if the public is to receive the highest level of digital service.’

Posted 28 March 2017 by Gary Flood

Guy Kirkwood of Robotic Process Automation vendor UiPath fears the opportunity of AI in the public sector could be squandered. 

The government’s heightened focus on its own digital transformation in recent months is indicative of the leading role that technology now has to play across all sectors. From the Serious Fraud Office through to the borough council level, public sector bodies are using AI to improve the service that is delivered to UK citizens.

As technology continues to both drive and help us adapt to societal change in this way and customers become ever more demanding, the government cannot afford to be any less responsive to their needs than the private sector. The launch of the government’s Digital Strategy is a timely recognition of this fact: as John Manzoni, chief executive of the Civil Service, has stated, “I want people to turn to digital public services as readily and confidently as they do when shopping, socialising or checking bus times.”

The £17.3m investment in AI and robotics research, announced as part of that Strategy, will prove to be a critical tool in helping the public sector adapt to this change of pace. The challenge: if it is to achieve its lofty digital targets, however, a rapid acceleration in the adoption of such technology will be absolutely vital.

‘AI’ming high?

As detailed in the digital strategy laid out by Kevin Cunnington, director general of the Government Digital Service (GDS), the latest plan “will lay a foundation for the digital government of the future”. That’s no small task, and it’s also one that will require every department to take on responsibility for delivering the technology that will facilitate this change.

Pivotal to changing the way in which the government engages with and serves citizens, is the effective use of big data. Andrew Anderson, CEO of machine-learning experts Celaton, recently commented, “90% of the world’s data was created in the past two years”, while analysts Gartner say up to 80% of organisational data is unstructured.

This makes it abundantly clear that while working with big data holds huge potential for organisations, the very latest technology is needed to bring it under control. The capability is needed for this unstructured and structured data to be handled far more efficiently, if it isn’t to become an empty promise from the government. This is where Robotic Process Automation (RPA) comes into its own as the next wave of essential business services.

Critical intelligence

By automating the repetitive manual tasks that drain so much time from people across all industries worldwide, the technology can give an organisation the chance to spend time adding value to the services it delivers. The fact that Gartner reports demand for RPA tools is growing at a rate of 20-30% each quarter shows just how important the technology is becoming for modern businesses.

In the government’s case, automation tools will certainly save time and money, of that there is no doubt, but with the objectives of its digital strategy in mind, the real advantage of robotics will be the opportunity it provides to use data more effectively. Automating the gathering of this data will free up valuable time for data scientists for example, to focus on its analysis, allowing them to identify trends and develop solutions to better serve UK citizens. This is where the public sector should be focusing its efforts.

As the analyst house Everest Group says in its report Rise of Automation in P&C Insurance, published last month, the more that an organisation understands RPA, the more priorities change. Initially, the cost savings will be the most attractive element of automation – but as people gain greater insight into how the technology works, more strategic advantages such as the optimisation of operations and improvements to governance and compliance come to the fore. The compliance angle in particular will be of massive importance to the government.

To date, the organisations that have been most active in deploying RPA hail from highly regulated industries like banking and insurance, as Deloitte references in its study, Intelligent automation entering the business world. In terms of the criticality of compliance, the government very much comes into the same bracket as these businesses. Taking the public sector fully digital in its interactions with citizens will mean many regulatory hurdles will have to be overcome and if the UK public sector wants to meet its objectives in this respect by 2020, automation will be critical in tackling these compliance challenges. Now more than ever, consistency will be key.

Act smart 

An issue that government has often struggled with regarding technological deployments, is consistency. Often, one department will have access to a set of data, while another will not, placing significant limitations on digital progress and hindering communications between different parts of the public sector.

Here, intelligent automation will be front and centre when it comes to handling these issues and overcoming the problems that the lack of communication and consistency have brought in the past. It will also prove a far more nimble, painless way of undertaking significant technological progress across the entire government, in a way that huge IT projects have often failed to do in the past.

In order for this to truly be a new dawn of digital government, the adoption of automation has to start immediately and at pace. The leading consultancies (PwC, EY and Deloitte, for example) have recognised the critical role that RPA will play in the future of business, making vast investments in delivering the advantages of the technology to the business world. The Deloitte Catalyst innovation ecosystem announcing its expansion into the field of robotics and cognitive automation underlines this increasing focus, for example.

For the public sector not to be left behind, it must take the lead from such consulting bodies.

There is exponential potential in the government’s Digital Strategy – but the right decisions must be made at an early stage if the public is to receive the highest level of digital service.

Guy Kirkwood is COO and Chief Evangelist at UiPath, a firm that says can help organisations develop an agile robotic workforce by freeing up employees from dull administrative processes, allowing them to be more effective, lower costs and improve operational accuracy.