RPA helps IRS make fundamental shift in procurement, finance operations

The Internal Revenue Service is using software robots to enhance the agency’s technology to improve its finance and procurement functions.

“The agency is making a fundamental shift with robotic process automation technology,” said Teresa Hunter, the CFO at the IRS.

“Both finance and procurement are committed to delivering a holistic approach to identifying processes that can be automated via for RPA and executing across operations for greater time-to-value by transforming lengthy manual processes from months to minutes of work,” said Shanna Webbers, the IRS’s assistant deputy commissioner for operations support and the former chief procurement officer.

In 2020, the procurement division was facing a tight deadline to modify its contract clauses to adhere to changes in federal legislation. Using the power of RPA, Webbers’ team executed nearly 1,500 contract modifications in 72 hours, a process that manually would have taken one year. That automation project reduced administrative burden on contracting officers, eliminated data errors, emailed the modification to vendors and then uploaded documentation into the contract file repository.

The CFO’s office plans to use bots to format data and deploy other bots to perform tasks such as consolidating information from multiple data sources, extracting data from documents and retrieving data related to property and equipment vouchers.

In fiscal 2020, the IRS collected almost $3.5 trillion in revenue and processed more than 240 million tax returns. Among its top priorities is modernizing the services it provides to the public and using technology to make the IRS more accessible, efficient and effective for both its employees and taxpayers.

Technology continues to evolve at an ever-increasing rate, more complex legislative demand continues to increase, real-time data is expected and competition for talent and skills has never been more intense. Introducing automation into operations will impact how people perform their duties, the IRS CFO office and the IRS procurement office are focusing on upskilling and reskilling their employees to work with automation tools.

“Our vision for RPA is centered around improving customer satisfaction, increasing efficiency, and enhancing mission effectiveness by focusing on the customer and the employee experience. We want to make CFO a place where people can come to work and have career fulfillment, drive enhanced business decision support, and find value in the things we do,” said Hunter. “Technology is the future of finance, and automation is an essential part of our transition from our current state to agile finance, which is a center of innovation to meet future needs.”

Webbers said she feels the same way.

“We should ask employees which tasks or processes are mundane, repetitive and ripe for automation. Our employees are smart so we should let them identify opportunities to leverage RPA and let them focus on more interesting and higher value tasks,” she said.

Of course, it takes a team effort to achieve automation to the magnitude envisioned. Webbers and Hunter have created a tight partnership with their counterparts in the Office of the Chief Information Officer.

Webbers said, “There are a lot of quality industry leaders in the automation space and have been for some years. After a competition, IRS selected UiPath as the software platform for RPA. It’s important for us as leaders to understand the full complement of capabilities the contractor brings to the table so we can guide our staff in making smart decisions in the shortest amount of time possible.”

These are real challenges to address and real opportunities to pursue. The IRS continues to identify opportunities to leverage existing data and technology and integrate new processes to increase efficiency and reduce overly complex processes; recognize the needs, skills, talents and abilities to continue to grow our technical expertise; build on our strengths; and shift from a compliance-based to a decision-based mindset.

IRS leadership has taken steps to enhance soft skills among employees such as active listening, problem-solving, and open communication, and collaboration. The agency’s focus on communication and transparency in its adoption of automation is key to successful change management. We will continue our innovation efforts to focus on streamlining our processes, so we have the capacity to meet future demands.

Teresa Hunter is the chief financial officer at the IRS and Shanna Webbers is the assistant deputy commissioner for operations support and the former chief procurement officer at the IRS.

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