George Washington’s connection to Shared Services Organizations: An RPA Journey

Jim Walker

Robotic Process Automation as a Solution for Public Sector Resource Challenges

Three years ago at the North American Shared Services & Outsourcing Week annual conference in Orlando, our CIO and I happened across a booth demonstrating something called Robotic Process Automation. Not unlike our commercial counterparts, the National Aeronautic and Space Administration’s (NASA) Shared Services Center (NSSC) is a government-operated, fee for service organization. Operating under a very tightly controlled working capital fund every year, we very transparently met with customers to explain our fully burdened rates and ask them to estimate their estimated consumption of service for the year. The government and service provider team then spent the year aggressively trying to lower cost while expertly servicing the incredible astronauts, scientists, engineers, and support staff at ten geographically diverse NASA centers. For the past 11 years, the NSSC has returned funds to its sister space centers and is a recognized leader in the broader shared services government community.

Eventually, we thought we squeezed all the air out of the bag of tricks. Without additional labor arbitrage, with staff hiring freezes, the additional work, and technology what it is, rates would creep upward and meeting Service Level Agreements would be the standard; not exceeding them.

Standing at that booth, we saw a clear path to enable us to continue to increase our value to NASA, reduce operating cost and improve our staff’s morale while also meeting or exceeding SLA’s and expectations for our most precious resources: NASA people.

This column is the first in a series to describe the journey from expo booth to announcing the first RPA bot in a federal production environment. That bot is George Washington.

Our young and exceptionally bright CIO immediately saw this as a game changer. I had recently become the Services Portfolio Manager, responsible for incubating new business opportunities for the NSSC. My previous 15 years at the Defense Information Systems Agency, the Department of Defense, and Missile Defense Agency doing the full spectrum of IT operations to strategic planning had me standing with him looking at the potential of the tool. In a future column, I will suggest I was looking at it all wrong. We both agreed there would be value in evaluating RPA to decide if it is a silver bullet or a shiny toy.

When we returned from the SSON’s always-insightful conference, we were excited to delve into RPA to answer our provocative question. As many of you know, you return from a conference with great new insights and ideas but are often met by immovable objects. The “how” voices always overpower the “wow” voices. This happens everywhere, but it stings when it happens to you.

"The “how” voices always overpower the “wow” voices"

Our bot exploration had to sit on the shelf for another year. During this period, I read, attended webinars, attended SSON’s annual RPA conference in Chicago in August 2016, and started participating in the Corporate Executive Board’s RPA cohort meetings. When I attended the SSON’s RPA conference, I invited a mid-level government person from our finance team. After the conference, she provided positive quotes on how and why she felt RPA had a place in their workflow. Well, that was a “moon launch” moment at NASA. From August 2016 until May 2017, we went from the shelf to operational service and the ability to go beyond.

Leveraging the platform SSON is providing I want to have a dialog with you recounting our journey. How we collaborated, how we thought about RPA as a shared services force multiplier, how we communicated with our customer base, where we fumbled and where we recovered. RPA and the broader intelligent automation field are just the beginning.

"RPA as a shared services force multiplier"

I have two goals for this series. First, it is a career honor to have this platform. I want this series to be the catalyst for every local, state, and federal agency to use it as proof RPA is worth exploring. There is a federal grass roots forum for your consideration. I will talk about it in the future. Government leaders owe it to themselves to integrate digital workers into their underfunded and understaffed strategic plans. Starting your RPA journey is easy. All you do is start! My experience is the financial startup costs are reasonable, and branding is easier by tapping into proven experts. Additionally, a goal is to walk you through what we did to achieve lift-off. RPA deployment is no different than driving from Mile Marker 1 in sunny Key West, Florida to chilly Fort Kent, Maine on US route 1. The path is the same for everyone. The car and driver duo make the experience different.

Over the course of this series, I hope to create your most popular online community to talk about your journey, your ideas, and your successes. My intent is just to prime the conversations. RPA will not be on the first flight to Mars, but George Washington, and now successive bots named after previous NASA missions, are already pitching in to support future space exploration.

Until next month, make your days great.