Process Automation in Government: Challenges, Benefits, Best Practices

How do we make government tech work better for our citizens and our stakeholders?
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How do we make government tech work better for our citizens and our stakeholders? At the Camunda Community Summit 2021, Adrianna Tan—director of product management at San Francisco Digital Services, part of the city and county of San Francisco— discussed why government tech tends to fall behind the private sector and explained how process automation is helping government teams better serve their many public audiences. 

The Challenges of Tech in Government

Implementing technology in the government sector presents a number of unique challenges:

  • Meeting the disparate needs of various internal stakeholders, including elected and appointed officials and career staff, and;
  • Simultaneously serving all elements of the public, including residents, business owners, the homeless, people with varying levels of Internet connectivity, the disabled, etc.

In most cases, local government agencies are dealing with monolithic systems powered by legacy applications. Changing and optimizing business processes is painful because the systems and tools aren’t built to support changes. And vendors interested in selling software (and upgrades) often serve as the sole support team for government project managers, creating a potentially unhealthy dependency.

However, Tan believes in the near future, government tech stacks will not differ too much from the private sector, with a big emphasis being placed on reusable components and microservices. Adaptable tech and business processes will be the norm, and we’ll see a proliferation of embedded digital teams, reducing the reliance on outside vendors.

Process Automation is the Key to the Government Tech Future

So, how do we get to this tech future? According to Tan, process automation will play a key role. Process automation helps to orchestrate large, complex systems and processes so government agencies can build new ones on top of them. Automation allows government agencies to focus on developing programs — offering these as digital services to residents and businesses, helping everyone involved work more quickly and collaboratively. 

“It’s not always a tech problem. To me, it’s a collaboration problem, but things are changing.”

Adrianna Tan, director of product management, San Francisco Digital Services
now versus future of process automation

Tan explained that her interest in process automation piqued in 2020 when she worked on building San Francisco’s Relief Grant service during the heart of the pandemic. With all agencies understaffed and reeling from the shock of “a new normal,” she saw process automation as a way to maximize the value of her five-person team. She worked with a professional services firm to launch the grant application service in a matter of days, helping her more quickly get grant dollars to businesses in need. 

Ultimately the professional services model left a lot to be desired and there were aspects of the project Tan knew she wanted to tweak in the future. She realized that without direct hands-on experience and deep product knowledge, it would be difficult for her team to replicate the project again in the future. With this in mind, she sought a different solution for future process automation and turned to Camunda.

Starting Small, Creating Proven Value

Knowing that she needed to gain momentum and get buy-in for process automation, Tan used Camunda to start building small prototypes—primarily for internal use—exploring ways to introduce BPMN workflows into the agency’s work. Understanding that procurement is a big challenge for government, she identified two key areas where process automation could help:

  • Marriage licenses: including notifying City Hall of a plan to marry, a name change, proving the dissolution of a previous marriage (if applicable), etc.
  • Food truck permits: including food handling permits, parking permits, etc.

Breaking down the different steps involved in each process, Tan was able to add automation that streamlined the process for the public and internal teams. Additionally, she made it possible for users to easily access status updates so they could have a sense of where they were in the process and what next steps were forthcoming—saving time and money, and increasing user satisfaction.

Process Automation Challenges and Benefits

Tan explained that process automation is the future of government tech, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be challenges in its implementation. Challenges aside, Tan has found many benefits as the result of adopting process automation, specifically:

  • Streamlined workflows: Process automation has streamlined routing and hand-off actions across a 30,000 employee team
  • Accuracy: Using process automation virtually eliminated lost applications
  • Productivity: Process automation reduces manual entry, enhancing productivity and reducing the chance of introducing inadvertent errors. 
  • Collaboration: Process automation facilitates improved collaboration between teams 
  • Communication: By anticipating end user needs and building the process to address them, agencies can improve communication touchpoints with the public 
process automation helps to orchestrate large, complex systems and processes

Best Practices: Work Together to Improve Government Tech

Understanding that governments want to see the value in a solution before they invest in it, Tan believes it’s crucial that government and nonprofit communities work together to share best practices. By being part of the larger conversation around government and technology, government agencies will be better able to serve the public.

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