FAST 2023 - May 16 - Part 2: Automating Acquisition: It's a BOT Time
- Our next session, or first of the day is Automating Acquisition: It's a BOT Time. Discover how GSA teams are reimagining workflow processes and applying emerging technologies like robotics process automation. Saving time and enabling contracting teams to focus on high value, high impact work. Joining us, we have Joslann Igoe And Anthony Cavallo, Joslann and Anthony, the floor is yours.
Thank you so much. - Thank you, Kelly. Really appreciate that. Thank you for letting us be here. I'm Anthony Cavallo. I'm the director of our Process Optimization and Automation Division here in GSA.
We were formerly the RPA division. We've gone through a little rebranding process here. And with me, we have Joslann Igoe. Joslann. - Hi, I am Joslann Igoe. I am Director of Acquisition Process Solutions out of the Public Building Services Office of Acquisition Management.
And one of the primary focuses of my division is managing our acquisition automations. - Thank you. If you go to the next slide, please. So we're hoping to get everyone introduced to a little bit of RPA, Robotics Process Automation. We're gonna talk a little bit of how that's helped GSA, particularly in the acquisition field, help achieve some of those core goals that Robin just mentioned a minute ago.
Helping making it easier to do business, try to deliver value to customers, and trying to build that thriving marketplace. What we're doing here with RPA and automations in general are definitely helping achieve those goals. We're gonna give you guys some of those examples. And we're gonna make this a little interactive here too. We're gonna utilize, I saw an application called Menti, M-E-N-T-I.com
We'll give you guys the link and how to log into that to do some, some interactive surveying and games. Next slide, please. All right. If you don't mind, I'm gonna go ahead and if I can share my screen, Kelly? - [Kelly] Yup.
You can go ahead and take over share screen. Just click the share and take over. - All right. So if you guys don't mind, you can do this on your phone, you can do this on your computer.
If you're on your computer, just go to menti.com, enter in that code there, 8652 2372. Or you can pull up your photo app and just scan that QR code and it'll get you logged in. See a bunch of people logging in there already. Give it another second here. Oops.
All right. So if you guys wanna go ahead and answer this question, what is the most burdensome and manual task you perform every day? Let's see if we can start seeing some of those responsive emails. Oh, emails up there a lot. (chuckles) Approving, invoicing, budget reports, data entry, market research.
I am just seeing bot projects we've already done just flying out some of these burdensome tasks. This is great. Checking emails.
Evaluating scope of words. Go ahead. - Uploading documents, I saw. - Email seems to be the most popular one. All right, let's go ahead answering. - Hey, I see a contract close out.
- Oh, we'll talk about that one a little bit later. Forms, SAM, that's a good one. Going to sam.gov, researching things from there. Invoices again, yup. Training and other requests. All right, these are good.
We're gonna go ahead and let's go to the next question here. So how long does it take you to do these various burdensome tasks? All right, let's see. All day, every day, couple hours, hours. See a lot of different things, two to three hours.
That's a lot of various time ranges here, and I bet a lot of time everyone wished that they could be focusing on some other work instead of doing these burdensome things. Well, we're hoping to show you guys some really cool things where these type automations, these RPAs are gonna give you guys back these several hours, two hours all day. Hopefully, we can show you guys that.
Let's go to the next one. All right, I think this is the last question here. What is your familiarity with RPA? All right, looks like the majority new to RPA. Okay, this is good.
Great. I know what it is, but have not seen it yet in action. I'm familiar with it and seen how we have used it at my agency. So it looks like we're more on the new to RPA and learning what it is. This is good.
Well, luckily, the next couple slides we're gonna talk about should hopefully help answer that question for you guys. So we are gonna go ahead and... Oh, not yet. Let me go back. And Kelly, if you wanna share, I'm gonna stop my screen and we'll go back to the slide deck. - [Kelly] Yup. Joslann will bring that up here.
- So as she's pulling up the slides, so robotics process automation. So what is robotics process automation? Well, it's basically, yup, go back. There we go. Next slide please. So robotics process automation, it basically is running scripts. It's a software that is on your computer, it can be on your computer, it can be on servers, and it basically mimics humans' actions on the computer.
So a lot of those things that everyone was entering, their burdensome tasks. Researching things on sam.gov, responding to emails, contract closeout. If it's something that has very rules-based need to do this, then go to that.
And if this happens, then do this, very rules-based, logical, and it can happen on the computer screen. We can build bots is an another name for RPA or scripts to automate those tasks for you. What's great about the software, it's definitely evolved over the years.
This is not something new. RPA has been around for a long time, but the software we use has definitely gotten better throughout the years. And now, there are software out there.
If everyone's familiar in Excel, you would have macros, you would hit the record button and do a couple things in Excel, and then it recorded it, and then the next time it would do it for you when you hit the play button, that's basically what RPA is. But instead of being confined to just Excel or some sort of office project, you can do it on anything that's accessible on the computer. Very quick tools to use as well.
Next slide please. So open emails, log in to various applications. Again, it's not confined to just one application.
If you have access to it as a human, then it will have the same access and log in to various sites, push buttons, maybe there's tables of information on certain websites or applications. It can scrape that data and pull it in, and then it'll structure that data for you and then you can use that data to do more research. Tag things, read emails, send automatic emails out for yourself, go into databases, read data, compile stuff together, make calculations, move things around.
I mean, there's endless possibilities to what bots and scripts can help do on a daily basis for everyone to accomplish their mission. Next slide please. - There are many benefits that you obtain through the use of RPA. So everything that Anthony just mentioned, the bots can do. And so you end up with having so much increased productivity because not only are the bots producing for you, but also it frees up time and capacity for human workers to do more higher value work. So your overall productivity is increased.
Also, your operational excellence is increased. You end up with a standardized process, increased accuracy, and increased quality. Bots don't make mistakes like human workers would do, and so therefore, you don't spend time doing rework like you would in a human work situation. Also, my favorite part of RPA is that in order to automate a process, you really have to scrutinize that process. It has to be standard in order for you to automate it.
So you have to really look at every step of your process, make sure that it's standard, and inevitably, you always end up finding ways that you can improve that process. And you ultimately end up with increased compliance as well. You also increase customer satisfaction. You end up with new or improved service offerings to enhance your customer partner experience. So there's just a multitude of benefits that you gain when you're using bots or RPA, So we talked about compliance going up, speed, reliability, employee morale. We went through all those things that you spend too much time doing throughout your day.
And when you're doing those low value tasks that are so burdensome, even just a few minutes can really feel like too much time. So when those are taken away and off your plate, your morale goes up. The software itself is a high return on investment. We'll get into a little bit about what it's not and why it's a low risk technology to use, but it's very low code. So it's easy, it's attainable, and it's not invasive. So since we've gone through what bots are, what they can do and the benefits, we're gonna move forward now to take a little quiz.
- Yup, so I'm gonna go ahead and take back the screen here. And just to piggyback off, Jos, I think an important thing about benefits is saying this is very rules-based process improvement. So being able to do a bot, it really forces you to sit down and jot out what your steps are that you're currently doing. I know a lot of us might not have enough time to go back and do standard operating procedures or document what we're doing, really wanting to do an RPA, it forces you to sit down and do that. And when you're getting that on paper what you're doing, you might actually find ways to make it better, even without automation, just by saying, "Well, why are we going from step two to step three? I don't think we need to do step three anymore."
We can just go step two and four and right away, you've just improved your process by taking a step or two out. So I think it's a really good practice to take the time to document what you're doing. With that, we have got woo, 620, 630 people getting ready to go. SO let's get this quiz started. All right, what types of acquisition tasks can be automated? Contract closeout, contractor verification, mass modifications, market research, all of these tasks can be automated.
So let's see. All right, all of these tasks can be automated. Great job, all of you that answer. That's right. One of all the bots we did, contract goes out, contractor verification. That is a very popular automation across lots of different RPA programs across the agencies.
Most mature RPA programs have a contractor verification automation, mass modifications, and market and market research. Great one. All right, let's go to the next one.
Great job, everyone. All right. True or false, bot could never touch PII data. All right, let's see what everybody's gonna respond to this one.
And... False, right. Bots can touch PII. As long as you're being secure with the data, it's actually probably better for a bot to touch PII data 'cause when you're programming a bot, you can only program a bot to do exactly what you want it to do.
Whereas, a human might mistakenly grab the information and put it somewhere else, a bot, unless you program the bot to do that, it's not gonna mishandle the PII. Let's go to the next question. Great job so far, everyone. Question three. True or false.
Automations and AI are the same thing. Let's see, I don't know if everyone's familiar. AI or artificial intelligence. I know that's really big in the news ChatGPT and all that. So is that the same as as RPA? No, RPA is not AI. RPA, as we said before, it's very, very rules-based.
You have to program it to know where to go. It's follow step one, then step two, if something happens in step two, okay, go to the side and do this other thing. Whereas AI are algorithms and programs put together that can learn and pull lots of data. You have to feed it data and it gets better and better as the more data it's being fed.
Let's go to the last one here. All right, last question. True or false. To have automations built, you would need to hire professionals. Let's see.
True or false? This is a good one. Do we have to go out and hire contractors? Can you have in-house developers? People familiar with the citizen developer term? That's right, all those are false. You don't need to hire professionals.
As I mentioned earlier, the software nowadays is getting so much more intuitive and easier to use. There's a term called citizen developers where it's basically anybody who has access to this tools, just like I said before, the old school Excel macros. You can just hit the record button and go and do your normal activity that you wanna automate and the bot is built for you.
All right, thank you, everybody for cooperating. Oh, I forgot the show. Who won? Let's see. Misty. Congratulations, Misty. Oh, I'm sorry.
I think it's calculating all the... It's a tie. (laughs) So that's a lot of people with a tie.
So great job to everyone who provided answers. I really appreciate it. All right, and I'm gonna go ahead and stop. Joslann, if you don't mind pulling up the slide deck again. I think that's the last time we're gonna do the switch there.
So I apologize to everybody with the back and forth. - It was fun. - Yeah, it was. - Next, we're gonna go over some common misperceptions about RPA. We already talked a little bit about some of them during that quiz and Anthony went through some info, but there are a couple more I just wanna make sure that we hit upon. One is that RPA does not replace jobs. RPA does not replace human workers.
RPA replaces those low value, mundane, repetitive tasks that drive human workers crazy. So it does not replace jobs. Also, it still has to follow IT protocols. So enable to have authority to operate within the agency, you still need to go through your IT department depending on the scope of the bot, the systems that the bot touches and that sort of thing. So there are still IT protocols that need to be followed.
We went over a little bit why bots can't go rogue 'cause they're not smart. And then also you don't need to hire contractors. And I just wanna add too that the really cool thing about citizen developers, we have many here at GSA that do a lot of our RPA development and I think it's really unique and special in that they already know a lot about our process and they are already most of the time, experts in our systems that they're working on the project within. So we get a lot of benefit from that.
Next slide. - So a little bit about GSA and the bot program. We actually have a center of excellence and that is the division that I'm a head of. We have a pretty small team, about 10 plus where as I mentioned before, we used to be called the RPA division and now, we're the Process Optimization and Automation Division. We wanna say that the process improvement, the process optimization side, pretty much every single RPA project is in fact, an optimization project as well. So we wanna make sure we focus on finding those business processes that can be optimized and trying to optimize the best of ability.
RPA doesn't necessarily need to be the end all be all tool to automate business process. There are a lot of tools out there and that's what we're saying, is we would like to see that business process, try to optimize as best as possible and if RPA is the best solution for some of the automation steps, great, we can use RPA. It could be some other scripting languages. GSA utilizes Google as our cloud environment. So there's a lot of Google scripting that can be done, Python, PowerShell, there's a lot of tools out there that can help automate business processes. And we luckily have a team of in-house developers and we also have some Lean Six Sigma experts to help out on the optimization side.
They manage the whole intake and assessment and optimization side. And then we have our developers automate the parts of the process that can be automated. We also have the federal RPA community of practice. We have the individual who runs that, Gabrielle. She's actually gonna be part of this session as well. She's not feeling well unfortunately and wasn't able to make it, but she manages the community to practice and I think it's probably the best community practice out there in the federal government government.
We'll give you guys one of the later slides, we'll let you know how to join that community of practice. Next slide please. I think we're gonna jump into, Joslann's gonna talk about a specific use case in the acquisition world for RPA that GSA has built. - Yeah, so CLARA is our heaviest hitting bot that we have at work in PBS nationally for the acquisition workforce.
The purpose of CLARA when we first started out was to automate contract closeout, but can actually do much more of that now in its final operational state. So CLARA bot actually can produce a contract's release of claims document. It can also conduct a contract's financial review report.
It can draft a contract's de-obligation modification and then it can fully also close the contract inclusive of all of the filing and all of that fun stuff. This bot is a perfect example of one of those process improvement stories because when we first started working towards automating contract closeout, there was no standard process. Everyone was determining financial eligibility a little bit differently.
There was no one way to do it. So something that we did within the CLARA bot project team was develop a report with our business intelligence group and it was a multiple layer of development really. But that financial review report was a standard way to determine eligibility for contract closeout and all of the information that you would need about that contract. So now the financial review report is actually a star of this automation. It is used across business lines.
All of the team members on the project teams use this functionality. It can be requested at any time within the project's lifecycle. Actually, of the 21,000 requests that CLARA did in FY '22, less than half of those were full contract closeouts. Most of them were financial review reports.
So CLARA bot uses that financial review report and then as part of that bot process, can send it out to the team, but also reads that report to determine eligibility for closeout. CLARA won't close the contract if the financial review report is showing that there are unliquidated obligations. If that's the case, then the contracting officer would have to request a de-obligation model and actually, a quality benefit that we get from CLARA.
We used to track on liquidated obligations and monthly, we would have a chase list that we would have to go hunt down every closed contract, all of those balances, reopen them, de-obligate them, close the contracts back up. And since we've been using CLARA for over a year now, we don't even track that anymore. It's not even a chase list. So that was a huge victory from using CLARA.
CLARA works with firm fixed price contracts. You'll have to excuse me, I'm battling a little bit of sore throat here. But in FY '22, which was our first year full functionality, we saved more than 36,000 hours of labor.
And that is financial review combined with contract closeout and all of the pathways that CLARA conducts. This frees up so much time for decision making and analysis and like I said, in FY '22, CLARA did over 21,000 transactions, which is a huge victory for the automation. We are on track in FY '23 to close more than 12,000 contracts with the bot. If you wanna read more about all of the use cases in acquisition PBS for our acquisition workforce, that link there will take you to white papers for all of our automations and production currently.
- So as much before, the federal RPA community of practice, you can join that. There's the link at the bottom of the slide there. What's great about this, but I mean, I think it's a great community of practice.
Back when GSA was starting its journey with RPA, we had so many questions about how do we set it up? What's the right tool to use? Things like that. And we started reaching out to other agencies and we found out the other agencies had the same questions too. So we figured, well, let's just get this community together and let's help all agencies share that knowledge and help us all get our RPA programs up and running and magnify the ability for these automations to assist all of federal government. We have lots of different sessions, webinars, and events that discuss best practices of building automations, setting up your programs, getting authority to operate if you're deciding to do an enterprise solution.
We've broken into small, there's actually, an acquisition working group. Group breaks off and talks all about RPAs just for acquisition. There's an invoice one as well. There's well over, I think it's closer to 1,800 members now, 100 different agencies. But please, if you haven't already, this is for federal employees and contractors that are currently working for federal RPA programs.
Those contractors are allowed. Unfortunately, we're not allowed to have the private sector in these community practice unless the individual is working in an RPA program within the federal government. Next slide please. I said before next steps, you can go to gsa.gov/fedrpacop
if you'd like to know more about the community practice and how to join. If you're within GSA, you can go contact rpaoffice@Gsa.gov and if you have any ideas for automating certain business processes. And for Joslann's team, if you wanna visit the periodic table of acquisition innovations, that's a great site to learn more about automations within the acquisition workforce.
And Joslann's team put together this really cool video summarizing a lot of the things that we just talked about now too, about what RPA is and how it works in the federal government. So with that, I opened up the Q&A and there's a lot of questions. I'm trying to see if I can go through some of these. - Anthony, I did see one about CLARA specifically and I did just wanna say, one of the questions was like, how is it maintained? Is it really sustainable? And that is what my division does in PBS, is we maintain it in tandem with Anthony's group in terms of when we need development updates. But it is something that does require maintenance, especially the volume at which we function with CLARA.
But it is sustainable and our divisions work together to keep it functioning properly. - Now, I think there was questions about CLARA, can it be used across government? So as everyone knows, pretty much every agency has their own contract writing system unique to their agency. And even within GSA, we have our fast side and our PBS side, they use different acquisition systems. So the way CLARA is built right now, it really works for PBS. The basics of CLARA should be the same for every agency. How to close out a contract, but the actual inner workings and the button clicks and things, it's more programmed for the PBS side of the house for GSA.
But again, we are happy to share our documentation and the architecture around it. If other agencies are are interested in starting their own contract closeout type automations. We're not promoting one vendor versus the other.
There are a lot of RPA tools out there. GSA does utilize one of those tools. But like I said, pretty much nowadays, the majority of RPA tools are pretty similar and should be able to take care of your automation needs. Local government employees.
Yes, I believe the COP is. if you have a .gov or .mil, you should be be able to join.
Did you see any other questions? - It is 1:50, so we'll need to be wrapping up here. - Sure. Thank you, Kelly. - Excellent information. We really appreciate it.