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OPINION:

Cops and Robots: The ‘new normal’ for UK police with an automated workforce

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UK police forces are under constant pressure to deliver more services with limited resources. IBM Services Associate Partner Luke Mundy explores how augmenting existing human resource with a digital, automated workforce could increase capacity, freeing up officers and staff to concentrate on nuanced, skilled, high-value tasks.

With demand for police services outstripping supply, augmenting the human workforce with digital workers is becoming a strategic imperative for forces who want to get ahead of demand during the 2020s.

This can free up police officers and staff to focus on the more interesting, nuanced and high-value elements of their work, thus increasing the capacity of the whole organisation.

Delivering automation successfully and at scale requires executive sponsorship, thought leadership and a demonstrated approach to delivery. Most importantly it means thinking strategically about what a digital workforce can do to serve the public; not just “what processes can we automate?”

Successful robotic process automation (RPA) programmes tend to focus not on replacing jobs, but on automating repetitive tasks and processes wherever they are found. This can free up police officers and staff to focus on the more interesting, nuanced and high-value elements of their work, thus increasing the capacity of the whole organisation.

Whether the digital worker is cleaning up data, processing goods receipts, resetting passwords, keying data between systems, compiling vetting information or ensuring the quality of case files, these activities are all important. However, automation can ensure they are completed without needing to distract your staff. As one chief constable said to us: “It’s about automating process, not decision making.”

By making end-users central to the approach, the business need can be better met by using RPA to leverage your legacy IT investment and loosely integrate existing systems in end-to-end process automations that are owned by the users themselves.

The beauty of RPA is that you don’t need to re-engineer, replace or tightly integrate your existing IT systems. You simply create a digital worker and train it to login and use your existing systems in the same way a human worker would.

The case study: 70FTE digital workers for a large UK force

Avon and Somerset have set an ambitious goal to grow their digital workforce to 70 FTE over a three-year project, effectively increasing the capacity of the force by more than 1%.

Avon and Somerset predict that for every £1 spent on automation in the first three years, they will see a return in value of £2.50 during that same period, and the return continues well past 
that date.

With IBM as the delivery partner, so far 12 automations have been created in 10 months, freeing up 20 FTE of capacity and putting them well on the way to achieving their long-term objective. Benefits are immediate once each process has gone live and by delivering iteratively, the return on investment is growing rapidly.

Avon and Somerset predict that for every £1 spent on automation in the first three years, they will see a return in value of £2.50 during that same period and the return continues well past that date.

User perceptions have changed during their RPA programme, from ‘Will this take my job?‘ to ‘I wonder how we ever coped without it‘. And as business demand for automation ramps up, departments are moving from asking ‘When can I have my next robot?’ to proactively setting aside budget to expedite the onboarding of a new digital worker. They are even giving each one its own name!

The programme is beginning to bring about a culture shift in the way departments in the force think about how they carry out their work, and has boosted both the morale and throughput of teams who have been augmented with digital colleagues. These digital workers have taken on mundane but important tasks, processing them at pace and without error, freeing up extra capacity of officers and staff to focus on front line activity and other work which really makes a difference.

Having successfully automated a wide range of simple, high-volume data quality and ‘housekeeping’ type processes, Avon and Somerset are now focusing on automating aspects of more complex tasks such as Case File Assembly for prosecutions. This is a core part of operational police work to ensure the successful prosecution of cases which, if not done efficiently, creates a bureaucracy that wastes an enormous amount of time and effort.

In this automation, we are engineering digital workers to assist officers in checking quality and consistency prior to CPS submission, and either fixing minor issues directly or tasking the appropriate stakeholder in order to create a ‘right first time approach’ that drives down the CPS rejection rates. It is anticipated that a considerable amount of operational police capacity will be then available for other force priorities.

The business case: immediate benefits and rapid ROI

RPA offers a low-risk, iterative, value-adding way to bring automation to your business, and serves as a springboard to more complex and intelligent automation in the future. Every day that your force is not employing digital workers is another day’s ROI missed and man hours lost to repetitive yet automatable tasks.

We all take automation for granted in our personal lives to carry out repetitive tasks – from dishwashers and vacuum cleaners to washing machines, central heating, ovens and cars. Not only do they make us safer, but free up countless hours so that we can spend time on higher value activity, whether with our families, on our hobbies or in our career. They don’t completely remove the manual activity, but by augmenting us, they go a long way to providing time saving, high quality and consistent results in our daily routine.

In policing, achieving consistency of approach has often been a real challenge for forces, not least because police officers have tremendous discretion in how they handle a particular situation and use their training and judgement accordingly.

Anyone working in manufacturing, engineering or distribution will be accustomed to being deployed alongside physical robots which enable them to achieve high quality, consistency and speed, reducing costs and minimising risk to human colleagues. Automation is an essential element of those industries and it would be inconceivable to do without.

In policing, achieving consistency of approach has often been a real challenge for forces, not least because police officers have tremendous discretion in how they handle a particular situation and use their training and judgement accordingly.

However, increasingly, in order to ensure compliance with good practice, procedures and processes need to be followed, and inconsistency of application can lead to support not being provided when it should. Digital workers will dramatically improve this consistency through automation of logic-driven activity, providing peace of mind to officers and other stakeholders in a process.

An essential part of building the RPA business case is to analyse the process in detail first. Many organisations will not know the detail of how much time is spent on delivering a process or the downstream impact of it on other parts of the organisation.

It’s important to ensure these metrics are fully understood in order to attribute a value and a priority to creating any particular automation. Error rates in the manual process are typically between 1-5%, and the cost of resolving these errors is high, so calculating this impact is also an important element of the analysis.

These metrics help form the overall business case for automation at scale alongside the many softer benefits of staff satisfaction, lower risk, reduced backlogs, improved data quality, better audit trails and so on.

The ROI for a typical automation programme is 12-18 months. Once running at scale, the monthly value returned far outweighs the costs of managing and operating your digital workforce.

Keys to starting an automation journey

Every force wants to ensure that its most valuable assets – the skilled, security cleared, cognitive human workforce – is focused on the most productive, high-value and fulfilling aspects of their work. So how does a force give its people the benefit of automation technology, and why do so many organisations fail to deliver the real value of automation?  

Executive sponsorship: Strong executive sponsorship borne out of a full understanding of the automation potential is paramount, and will avoid the temptation to think of the technology as an innovation experiment rather than delivering a well-planned and fully funded initiative.

IT engagement: RPA is sometimes seen as simply a sticking plaster where there should be an IT solution to the business problem, including system change or integration. IT change can be expensive, complex and have dependencies on third parties over whom there is limited leverage. RPA is a tool which complements and augments rather than replaces legacy IT systems and infrastructure. While IT changes are indeed sometimes the answer, RPA can offer an optimal solution by loosely integrating existing systems and delivering value at pace, and leaving flexibility to evolve in line with current business need. 

Should IT solutions make the automation redundant in the future, the digital worker can be retrained, adapted or retired. Furthermore, we are seeing IT services themselves being transformed by RPA in the form of automated application monitoring, leading to self-heal actions or human callout depending on the issue detected. Where deployed at scale, this is leading to dramatic reductions in tickets and outages within IT delivery.

Delivering simple, low-risk, but successful early automations is key to the ‘hearts and minds’ approach.

Making jobs better, not taking them: Augmenting the human worker is a culture change that doesn’t happen on its own. It takes place over the course of a high-quality, process discovery approach, where the business leads and the end-users – through a collaborative and design-thinking approach – get to grips with the technology and brainstorm, document and prioritise the opportunities for automation in their workplace. Delivering simple, low-risk, but successful early automations is key to the ‘hearts and minds’ approach.

Processes don’t have to be perfect: The police service if anything consists of pragmatic problem solvers who understand the world is never perfect, where ‘good enough’ trumps a ‘perfect’ that never delivers.

Some organisations set out to transform and perfect their processes prior to automating, leading to long delays and slow return on investment. A pragmatic approach which allows refining rather than perfecting of the process during the automation design enables progress to be made and the benefits to be realised early. Indeed, this can free up capacity to focus on future process transformation. 

Processes don’t have to be highly critical: Identifying the ‘killer process’ that, when automated, will make the investment case is the goal of some organisations. Through hard experience, we have found that the most successful implementations simply aim to automate some aspect of every role in the organisation.

The business case and ROI from this approach are just as compelling, easier to achieve and lower risk. Automation of high-value operational processes will be identified and delivered as part of a long-term strategic approach, but are often more complex and higher risk, requiring the skills and experience learned through earlier simpler automations

Leave humans to make important decisions: RPA is not about robots making intelligent decisions, rather it is the first step on an automation journey and only involves logic-driven processes and tasks. Decisions which require human judgement are not being automated, but are being surfaced to their human colleagues more quickly and easily due to the automation of the logic-driven parts of the process.

Professional Standards – visibility of robotic activity: The robots leave behind a detailed audit trail of every action and decision. They access systems in the same way as a regular user and have no special access. The processes they follow are documented to mouse click level detail and they are built in line with this documentation and robustly tested by the users. Correctly deployed, they can actually lower the risk by reducing human activity in sensitive systems. 

Getting started – an iterative, low-risk, fast-benefits approach

Introducing and scaling RPA in an organisation is an iterative journey of process discovery, refinement and automation. By creating a pipeline of work and prioritising the highest impact automations, the project is highly adaptive to the business need.

In contrast to traditional high-cost, high-risk IT projects where requirements are typically captured up front and the business benefits are not achieved for months or years, the RPA approach is highly agile, places the user front and centre, and delivers rapid benefits.

In contrast to traditional high-cost, high-risk IT projects where requirements are typically captured up front and the business benefits are not achieved for months or years, the RPA approach is highly agile, places the user front and centre, and delivers rapid benefits.

Depending on the size and complexity of a particular automation, from inception to go live could be anywhere from four to 12 weeks, meaning users stay engaged throughout the process. This low-risk approach means that organisations can scale their RPA project over time as the process pipeline grows and the full business case emerges.

If you’re not sure where or how to get started, IBM’s ‘taster’ workshops explain RPA and do a small amount of process discovery with users, enabling the business to better determine the type of automation opportunity in their force and hence whether they want to undertake a proof of value (PoV).

An eight-week PoV allows a force to fully explore the opportunities created by process automation and the ‘new normal’ workplaces where every human is augmented and assisted by digital colleagues. The PoV will demonstrate not only whether the technology works by delivering a working automation, but crucially whether there is enough latent value to warrant a larger investment as part of a strategic initiative. This will be in the form of a pipeline of documented processes signed off by the users which drive the business case.

It allows a potential delivery partner to be assessed for their approach and methodology, and aids the force’s decision making regarding technology choices and delivery options and whether or not they wish to build an in-house ‘centre of expertise’ to run, manage and grow their team of digital workers in the long term.

Moving into delivery from here is a continuation of the same approach, by starting to shift the automation pipeline into development lifecycle and using a proven delivery approach which sets out clear objectives and milestones achieved through an iterative approach to build and test. Reusing existing assets from the delivery organisation or other forces will help lower the risk and accelerate the delivery of your automations. 

Delivery options

An in-house approach is possible but restricts the opportunity for collaboration, reuse of assets and best practice. Because of the slower benefits to the business, this represents a diminished ROI. Avon and Somerset modelled this option and concluded that the ROI would be three years rather than 14 months, with just 20 FTE digital workers rather than 70 achieved over this period.  

Partnering with an experienced RPA delivery organisation can help you to achieve rapid benefits, and get to scale with minimal fuss and lower impact to your ‘business as usual’ activity. Scoping, building and recruiting for your own centre of expertise can take place in parallel to enable you to become self-sufficient in a shorter time frame.

There are a range of commercial options for working with an RPA partner and these can be considered during the PoV.  Regardless of the option, a force should retain full control over the pipeline of automations, the priority and the need to ramp up and down according to demand. This minimises risk and maximises flexibility to adapt the programme to the evolving needs of the business.

What next?

“Where do we start?” is the question we’re asked most. Our advice would be to begin with a free workshop. It gives you the opportunity to learn more about this capability, and what other police forces have done already, so you don’t have to.

Don’t leave your human workers without the digital assistance they deserve.

 


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