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Robotic process automation project results in big benefits for Coast Guard


While it’s a relatively new tool for the Coast Guard, the service’s use of robotic process automation (RPA) is already realizing significant savings of time and money. The RPA effort was led by the Office of Research, Development, Test & Evaluation (RDT&E) and Innovation; the Research and Development Center (RDC); the C5I Service Center (C5ISC); and the Office of Financial Systems and its RPA Center of Excellence (COE). The effort was recently selected as the 2023 Capt. Niels P. Thomsen Innovation Award winner for Administration, Logistics or Support. 

How significant is access to RPA for the Coast Guard? To date, over $2 billion in financial transactions have been run through RPA, and RPA has supported the Resources Directorate’s efforts to identify and repurpose $80 million in current year funding on high priority or emergent initiatives. In the area of financial transactions alone, RPA’s ability to replace manual time-intensive processes has saved the equivalent of 24 full-time positions in processing time, according to Celestina Budovec, who currently works with the National Pollution Funds Center but served as a citizen developer with C5I and the RPA COE during the RPA project.  

Another example of the value of RPA involves talent management. “We have people all over the Coast Guard who are doing simple repetitive tasks when they could be using their extensive talents on something much more complex,” said Cmdr. Jonathan White, Cloud and Data Branch chief with C5ISC. “This effort is about empowering people, not replacing them. We are just trying to relieve the workforce of the tedious, automatable tasks that take up so much of their time.” 

The project also underscores the importance of seeking and incorporating input from the workforce in finding ways to enhance operational effectiveness. The RPA project evolved from an idea submitted by a commander in the Office of C5I Capabilities during the annual call for ideas for research projects. Use of RPA for financial transactions had already been validated, and the commander suggested the RDC should “examine tangential capability areas which might also benefit from RPA technology.” Human capital transactions, logistics applications and domain awareness were areas that might show benefits, the commander speculated. The RDC then used its crowd-sourcing tool, CG_Ideas@Work, to gather possible use-case ideas from the workforce.  

Determining its value 

RPA is accomplished by taking labor intensive, repetitive activities and programing third-party software to replicate human workflow. “The goal is more intelligent process automation,” said Dr. David Wiesenhahn, RDT&E Modeling and Simulation portfolio manager.  

RPA programming has matured to the point that the Coast Guard is using  the software program, also known as a bot, to interface with business processes. The bots use software to integrate systems and restructure labor in an effort to automate workflows and minimize labor costs or free up personnel to tackle other activities.  

The project the RDC initiated sought to identify challenges, issues and requirements for RPA sustainment within the Coast Guard, with an eye toward bringing this technology to service-wide implementation. To demonstrate RPA’s potential, the research team wrote a bot to replace the methodical work of turning weekly, manual data pulls into a report. The bot gathered data from different systems, including law enforcement and aviation logistics systems, and provided that data to the analysts as a report. This single automation reduced a four-hour task into a 25-minute task and shifted the labor from the analyst to the computer. “That project gave us good experience on what it takes to write an RPA,” Wiesenhahn said. 

Multiple potential use cases were explored, including issuing orders and permanent change of station paperwork and other business processes that pull data and generate routine reports. “This is the tip of the iceberg,” he said. 

Dr. Devon Gunter, an operations research analyst at the RDC and RPA project lead, offered other potential use cases for RPAs within the Coast Guard: maritime domain awareness enhancement using low-bandwidth communications, Officer Evaluation Report data entry and entering task codes into finance and budget systems … “I am sure there are hundreds of possible use-cases across all the myriad processes that occur within the Coast Guard.” 

One of the first challenges for researchers was determining how to make the software and necessary browser extensions work with the complex firewall and security of the Coast Guard information technology system. Licensing details also created issues that needed to be worked through. 

In addition, because bots require continual maintenance and monitoring for patches and changes in the business systems they interface with, the RDC project also examined different strategies to sustain RPAs. Bots can be fragile and sensitive to small changes in upstream business systems, where something as inconsequential as a change in format could cause the bot to break without warning. Different sustainment approaches were identified, along with strengths and weaknesses of each approach. 

“The key challenge with RPA, as in single automation, is that it is inherently fragile,” Gunter said. “For example, the automations that interface with the Financial Systems Modernization Solution (FSMS) will potentially break when FSMS receives updates to the system. This requires a cadre of developers to be able to quickly identify and remediate the errors.” 

Overall, the project found that many commercial vendors are offering mature RPA solutions that the Coast Guard could use, including those ecosystems or licenses that already exist within the Department of Defense or Department of Homeland Security.  

Regarding RPA as a service-wide capability, the RDC recommended a federated model that uses a central hub to manage the bulk purchasing of licenses, code sharing best practices and a pool of developers, Gunter said. Local offices would be able to leverage citizen developers – users that produce their own bots using no- or low-code development environments to improve their day-to-day tasks – to agilely tackle the emergent needs of their business unit.  

The research end, completed last year, produced nine bots that automated time-consuming, repetitive and routine processes such as weekly data pulls. These automations increased accuracy and enabled approximately 24.5 full-time equivalent personnel to focus on more complex tasks. 

Making it happen

“We were not really doing much with RPAs until the RDC approached us with the idea,” Budovec said.  

But just over a year following initiation of the project, “RPA is being used within every district Coast Guard-wide,” White said. More than 200 licenses have been deployed throughout the Coast Guard. “We can deploy this capability anywhere.” 

Initial implementation of RPA concentrated on financial transactions, as one way to streamline the FSMS transition. “Over two dozen individual bots have been produced to complete a myriad of financial transactions that ranged from obligating utility, government vehicle and FedEx transactions to deobligating residual values on travel obligations and cleaning up credit card transactions, Budovec said. “These bots allow the field to process financial transactions for Military Standard Requisition and Issue Procedures orders, fuel, hazardous waste issues and leases at a much quicker rate than what can be accomplished manually.” 

Because of the success of these efforts, the director of financial operations/comptroller established a Governance Council in addition to the COE, led by Jessika Hunt, to coordinate leadership on RPA policy, intake, evaluation, prioritization and consistent process and templates for all bots that will interface with financial or mixed financial systems. The COE provides three full-time RPA developers and two functional analysts to deliver bots within six to eight weeks as well as provide full-time maintenance support. A recent accomplishment of the governance council was the establishment of an approach to assess use case risk that directly accelerated the development requirements for low and moderate risk automations. This revised risk-based approach standards for documentation and approval allows low and moderate risk automations to be delivered expeditiously and expands the organization’s ability to deliver more automations while maintaining policy criteria.  

Because of the speed and efficiency of bots with financial transactions, the Coast Guard can more easily identify money that is inappropriately marked and may be applied to other priorities, Budovec said. 

Since its introduction, there has been so much demand for this capability that C5ISC has partnered with the Office of Financial Systems COE to prioritize its development, said Lt. j.g. Drew Cheneler, cloud technical project manager at C5ISC. The initial focus has been with offices within the Resources Directorate. The next focus will be with the Human Resources Directorate. 

“Our goal is to provide automation as a service,” ranging from bot design and tasking to deployment and sustainment, Cheneler said. 

In order to initiate a request for RPA, personnel must be able to explain the process they are hoping to automate. “Not all processes can be automated,” Cheneler said. “A lot of our customers first need to review the process as a whole to see what can be streamlined. For example, do you really need 10 people to review something?” 

While C5ISC is concentrating on service-wide applications, Coast Guard personnel who want to see if RPA can help with their individual “traditional back-office processes” now have free access to Power Automate Desktop in the service’s Storefront software request system. In the future, C5ISC hopes to develop a licensing program for citizen developers interested in creating bots for specific individual needs. 

Over the last 12 months, Cheneler and his team have strategically identified individuals across the organization that have the bandwidth and willingness to learn about RPA. These individuals – often very junior members in the organization – are the ones developing, testing and deploying automation solutions for their unit or office. These deck plate developers are the ones helping the organization adopt new technologies and bring a fresh perspective to implementation strategies. Moving forward, the citizen developer movement is going to play a pivotal role in scaling RPA across the entire organization. 

While a separate Automation Center of Excellence is on the horizon, RPA is being managed for now through a partnership among the C4IT Directorate, C5ISC, the Office of Data and Analytics and the Resources Directorate.  

C5ISC representatives said they cannot emphasize enough how crucial RDT&E and the RDC were to the RPA program’s success. “RDC was instrumental in bringing RPAs to the Coast Guard,” White said. “This is among the most successful IT-based RDC projects I’ve ever seen, and it went from conception to enterprise service within the span of a year and a half.”  

Conversely, C5ISC also deserves credit for the tremendous growth in the program once it transitioned to them. “This is something that really resonates with Coast Guard IT users,” White said. “It is a big win for everyone.”    

Helping the Coast Guard do more 

The RDC works closely with C5ISC to bring cutting-edge capabilities from prototype to production. C5ISC brings rigorous project management, scale and sustainment to deliver new capabilities to the entire Coast Guard. 


Data Team One’s robotic process automation 

Transforming operations with robotic process automation 

For more information: Research, Development, Test and Evaluation program page, Research and Development Center page, C5I Service Center page and CG-8 RPA center of Excellence Teams page (Coast Guard members only).