By 2023, nearly 30 percent of Federal employees will be eligible for retirement – a soon-to-be reality that keeps Federal agency and IT leaders up at night. How can leaders prepare for greater productivity, capture as much institutional knowledge as possible in the interim, and ensure mission continuity and efficiency as new employees onboard? Process and infrastructure automation is an essential part of the solution.
The Federal government has been chiseling away at business process automation for decades, but many processes remain highly manual and even paper-based. But, the work doesn’t end once agencies automate their processes. They must then turn their attention to automating the IT infrastructure that supports and sustains their digital processes. Automation has many layers and complexities, but it yields tremendous returns when executed strategically.
Agencies have built improved automation into their strategic plans – the Department of Justice IT Strategic Plan, for example, includes the goal of integrating self-service processes through automation, to enhance customer support and continuously improve service delivery.
Many are specifying the importance of automation in RFPs and RFIs, as the Department of Homeland Security Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) organization did this summer as it looked to consolidate IT systems into a single architecture.
The RFI requested that submitting vendors make use of emerging technologies, including AI, machine learning, and robotics process automation.
“When I meet with C-level executives, I often ask them ‘Have you automated enough?’ The answer is usually ‘no,’” said David Egts, chief technologist, North American Public Sector, Red Hat. “Leaders need to make automation a priority, instead of relegating it to their someday list. Once they start automating, they’ll build a productivity flywheel that continues to yield perpetually compounding benefits.”
Automation has the potential to save Federal agencies up to 1.3 billion hours, and COVID-19 has accelerated agencies’ automation adoption. A recent MeriTalk study found that 78 percent of Federal IT managers said the pandemic increased their agency’s focus on process automation.
Digital signatures are one example of how the Federal government has accelerated and embraced automation in the last 18 months. Many agencies had continued to rely on wet signatures for critical documents that range from contracts to law enforcement directives. When the Federal government shifted to remote work at scale, agencies had to pivot quickly to electronic signatures to avoid critical service and mission disruption.
Beyond productivity gains and delivering faster/better services to citizens, Federal leaders also see automation playing an important role in efforts to support both employee retention and professional development. Nearly three-quarters of respondents in a recent study said that one of the greatest benefits of automation is moving employees away from redundant or low-value tasks. This can support vital retention initiatives as employees’ more meaningful, higher-level work is much more closely aligned with agency missions.
U.S. Customers and Border Protection (CBP) leverages automation to drive both productivity and team engagement. It used robotic process automation (RPA) to automate 45 workflows in the past year, saving the agency thousands of hours of manual labor and giving team members more time to focus on mission-critical initiatives.
“This is one of the fastest-growing technologies within CBP,” said Sonny Bhagowalia, chief information officer, CPB. “RPA applies technology which is governed by business logic and structured inputs and aimed at automating repeatable mundane business processes, leaving people free to concentrate on knowledge-based activities.”
Turning the Power of Automation to Infrastructure and Processes
Automation across IT infrastructure offers many of the same productivity, efficiency and cultural benefits, and is increasingly important as IT environments become more complex from the data center to the edge and beyond.
IT leaders seek ways to accelerate and ensure consistency of routine processes. For example, Egts said that they have worked with an agency to use automation to break down cultural silos between groups. The agency used Red Hat Ansible Automation Platform to create an organization-wide community of practice for automating common IT tasks such as provisioning and securing virtual machines. This allows team members across the organization to share best practices and make repetitive tasks faster, more consistent, and more cost-effective.
There are also important applications related specifically to law enforcement. Laws change, and law enforcement agencies need to rapidly incorporate those changes into their systems. Hardcoding the rules into an application is an expensive, time-consuming, and risky proposition. With automated business rules and a rules engine, agencies can immediately incorporate changes without needing to rebuild an entire application.
The Security Connection
The recent Cybersecurity Executive Order calls on agencies to expand automation with zero trust, “which embeds comprehensive security monitoring; granular risk-based access controls; and system security automation in a coordinated manner.” Automation will be fundamental to enabling and enforcing at scale the granular permissions that underpin the zero trust methodology.
Automation can also help secure employee onboarding and offboarding processes. Employees and contractors joining and departing organizations present the opportunity to give people too much access and possibly overlook deactivating accounts when they leave. Keeping track of all of this by hand presents significant risk. Automated workflows can integrate with HR systems and make managing these processes instant and consistent, reducing the chance for human error and boosting overall security.
Integrate Your Solutions
There is no shortage of automation options for Federal agencies. Egts recommends taking a holistic look when considering a tool. “Don’t look at any one tool as being the be all end all. It’s important to always consider, ‘What does this tool integrate with?’” For example, Egts explained, “Red Hat Ansible integrates tightly with ServiceNow, which allows customers to automate IT service requests originating from that system. Just configure it and go. You can also use Ansible to manage any system that you can log into remotely. People often think that Ansible is only for Linux systems but it can automate the configurations of so much more. Beyond Linux, Windows, and UNIX systems, it can also automate the configuration of network, storage, edge, and other devices that you can remotely log into.”
As Federal leaders consider opportunities to improve efficiency, strengthen security, and give employees the best possible experiences – the path forward is to accelerate IT automation. If even a portion of the anticipated Federal retirements occur in the next three years, improved automation will pay significant dividends.