Virginia IT leader Nelson Moe said at Route Fifty’s Tech Summit last week that the state is finding solid measures of success rolling out robotic process automation (RPA) tools packaged in a software-as-a-service portfolio with diverse offerings similar to those found at food courts.

The Route Fifty event featured a “Spotlight: Automation” session with Moe, who is CIO of the Commonwealth of Virginia and director of its Virginia Information Technologies Agency (VITA), and moderator Erik Caldwell, Director of Data Strategy for The Atlas. The talk focused on Virginia’s ability to successfully implement automation into enterprise workflows, and how to evaluate programs for automation and their cost/time savings impact.

RPA is a form of business process automation technology that uses software robots to automate tasks traditionally performed by humans. RPA has been an up-and-coming technology priority for state and local government CIOs for several years now, and it certainly received a boost from demands around improving COVID-related challenges involving citizen services like unemployment claims, and vaccination scheduling, and tracking.

Tough Sell Traditionally

However, the technology challenge of automating what have been traditionally manual processes really dates back very far – to the first introduction of enabling technologies in government many decades ago.

From my perspective some of the most rewarding – and yes, most frustrating – experiences during my CIO days in Massachusetts and California involved introducing new enabling technologies to automate government business programs that had changed very little during the past 50 or even 100 years.

The challenge back then was often of a different nature. Moe described Virginia’s journey involving the tasks of assembling a strong internal team, selecting great vendor partners, and facilitating the procurement process for scores of state agencies to utilize.

Back in my time as CIO one of the greatest challenges was just to get agencies to adopt time and money-saving enabling technologies in the first place. And to be honest, many barriers still exist today for the government to do so, particularly around the issue of displacing workers whose involvement may be diminished following automation.

But apparently, there’s nothing like a pandemic to heighten the sense of urgency, facilitate change management challenges, and institute real reform through technology, as evidenced by Moe’s experience in Virginia.

Automation as a Service

Automation does promise lower cost and more efficient processes, but the devil as usual is in the details. “How can government implement automation into enterprise workflows to ensure those savings,” Caldwell asked, and Moe replied that he has focused on several key aspects.

“We recognized the urgent need from our Virginia workforce commission to speed up the processing of unemployment benefit forms. So that was the driving need,” Moe said. This matched up well with Virginia’s internal processes for delivering services in general. “RPA just came as the natural part of a services rollout,” he said.

As a consolidated IT services state, Virginia executive branch agencies are used to going through Moe’s VITA for their infrastructure services, internet storage, mainframe, desktop support, networking and so on. “So we are used to rolling out services at a grand scale, at a price point that [favors] adoption, and lining up corporate suppliers to help get it done,” Moe said. Bottom line: providing RPA as a VITA service was an easy call.

Strong Internal Team, Vendor Support

Caldwell pointed out that Virginia’s approach in building trust with vendors has been another factor that made VITA’s RPA implementation successful. “I think part of it is we brought in the right team members internally that recognized incentivization in the private sector,” Nelson said.

Two and half years ago, Moe hired John Ozovek who came from Wall Street and had done significant work with RPA. “He understood the data and the metrics necessary to incentivize businesses,” Moe said.

Previously, the time and effort it took to roll out a new service in government was so long that a supplier was not incentivized to participate and wait out the end of the process. “So, we had to speed it up,” Moe said. “We’ve gone from when John first got here, [being] in the 300-day mark, now we’ve got it down to 100 days. That’s within a timeframe that a supplier will say, ‘Yep, I’ll put the time and money and energy into it.’”

That kind of progress has helped to establish the trust to make the partnership successful. “It’s got to be win-win or no deal – for us, the commonwealth, the end customers, in this case, the Virginia Employment Commission and the supplier.”

IT Procurement Alignment

As Caldwell correctly pointed out, this kind of partnership with the vendor requires significant alignment between the procurement operation and IT. Fortunately, Moe’s VITA was aligned perfectly with IT procurement. In fact, they own it.

“We’re lucky here in Virginia that I’m also the IT procurement officer. I get a chance to see, and then guide the procurement approach to make sure it’s in alignment with the project,” he said. The solution, the procurement, and the rollout are handled by VITA. As a result, the only thing the consuming agency has to do is make sure they have their funds lined up for the project.

RPA Food Court

Moe uses the analogy of a food court to describe Virginia’s RPA approach, offering it up as a service where agencies can come in, and pick and choose how they utilize that service, or whether or not they utilize that service at all.

“They call it a platform framework,” Moe said. “The platform is individually contracted and pulled together like Legos, so I can add on here and there. And the suppliers have to sign up for a non-exclusive, non-exclusionary clause. And so I can add anybody’s solution like I can add another member to the team.”

Moe offered some final advice for other jurisdictions as they embark on deployments of these types of technologies. His first point was assurance that it can be done. “Okay, there’s a model out there and we’ve been able to satisfy the chargeback issue for the Federal use case, all the Federal funds, all the state funding, and all the grants. You can account for it.’

And Moe again emphasized the critical aspect of assembling a stellar internal talent team and the ability to identify first-rate vendors.

As to the former, Moe was effusive. “The team that we have here includes Cynthia Cordova-Edwards. She is a crackerjack. Her team has done a fantastic job on the financial modeling. I’d also like to mention Demetrius Rogers, who is John Ozovek’s deputy. Those two guys have done a fantastic job, taking a leap of faith rolling out an RPA, doing it in advance and speeding up the process. Without John, Demetrius and Cynthia I don’t think this would have been successful, but they did a fantastic job,” so said Moe, who as a former nuclear submariner knows a thing or two about making important things work well.

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John Thomas Flynn
John Thomas Flynn
John Thomas Flynn serves as a senior advisor for government programs at MeriTalk. He was the first CIO for the both the State of California and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and was president of NASCIO.