The most common perceived problem in the public sector at the moment in South Africa is service delivery. Our progress as a country is being hampered by inefficient processes, controls and transparency that constantly delay the rollout of infrastructure and necessities. The major issue is that a lot of the service delivery chain is dependent on manual processes – and I believe that Robotic Process Automation (RPA) can sharpen this up dramatically and improve delivery in critical areas for communities, across the board.
The first port of call would be targeting manual, inefficient processes that can be automated, rather than eliminated. I’ve said plenty of times that RPA doesn’t cost people their jobs – it frees up valuable employees to focus on creative tasks like problem solving, rather than getting bogged down in repetitive processes which can be automated in an instant.
Look at procurement processes at municipal level. To acquire something for the operation of a municipality, an RFP (Request for Proposal) needs to be issued to a pre-selected or approved number of registered vendors. Those vendors then submit their proposals and someone needs to assess them for cost-effectiveness and application, award the contract and then acquire the product. This process can take weeks, while the affected area sits without an essential service like water, sewage, waste or electricity. Automating the process can solve the problem in a fraction of the time, speed up service delivery and save money. It’s about addressing the heart of the issue – delivering services to the people who elected the officials that made promises, in the first place.
The second problem is that because these processes are currently manual, there’s a human element to them, over which it’s hard to exert control and oversight. This is where corruption enters processes and affects how, when and to whom contracts are awarded, and at what cost. Automation can add controls in the procurement process to gauge cost, identify potential risks and identify connected persons before deals are awarded. Look at the R300 million plus in PPE corruption that’s currently under investigation – RPA could have minimised, if not negated, those opportunities that allow for liberties to be taken within the system, at such a crucial time for our country.
The biggest stumbling block to implementing RPA is that so many of the processes at government level are manual and paper-based. Automation assumes a level of digitisation has already been done. But fundamentally, for a variety of reasons from the environmental to adaptation to new ways of working, the objective should be to eliminate paper-based systems anyway.
Some government elements are getting digitisation right – SARS, and the option to apply for ID cards and passports in bank branches with a minimum of paperwork, for example. The next level to this is automating these processes to speed up delivery – and rolling that tech out to other spheres, all the way down to local government – to deliver vital services to the people of South Africa, much faster.