Federal Employees News Digest

More automation coming, but how fast?

Hundreds of thousands of federal jobs could become automated over the next several years—at least according to some agency leaders, and experts who are speaking out on the need for government employers to urgently prepare to retrain and re-skill affected workers.

Several news stories on the trend—specifically quoting William Eggers, the director of Deloitte’s Center for Government Insights, who spoke at a tech event—appeared in a handful of publications over the past week, including Federal Times and NextGov, citing Eggers use of an estimate that 300,000-plus jobs could be vulnerable in the next several years. Eggers cited government sources, specifically the Office of Management and Budget, as a source of the estimate.

Eggers most recently authored “Delivering on Digital: The Innovators and Technologies that are Transforming Government.” He is not alone in his rapid-change predictions. Other leaders—including the current director of OMB, Mick Mulvaney—say that many labor-intensive federal jobs are increasingly liable to be replaced by computers and other machinery—and that the fraction is only expected to grow.

Mulvaney recently issued a well-publicized OMB memo entitled “Shifting from low-value to high-value work,” summarized for federal agencies parts of the President’s Management Agenda that call for employing more robotic process automation in place of "low-value” and repetitive tasks currently done by federal employees.

“The President's Management Agenda (PMA) prioritizes reducing the burden of these low-value activities and redirecting resources to accomplishing mission outcomes that matter most to citizens,” Mulvaney noted. Processes slated for automation include financial analysis and contracting documentation work, among others.

But to other experts, estimates of replacing hundreds of thousands of federal jobs on the near-term horizon appear unlikely—and even ill-advised. For example, while acknowledging that the automation of many kinds of jobs will expand, Richard Kogan—a former senior advisor at OMB, and now a senior advisor at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities—thinks such expansive predictions may be overblown.

“To my mind the 300,000 you mentioned would be a very big number,” Kogan said.

“And, besides, that level of automation that fast would be heading in the wrong direction,” Kogan added. “To the extent that efficiencies and more modern computing can be created and utilized, the gains from them should be something that leads to better services for the public.”

“It should be noted that government will always need people—people employed to directly answer questions accurately, fairly, and equally, in public service,” Kogan told FEND. “That is what the government is supposed to do—maintain an equal application of stated rules and applicable laws—in all kinds of tasks, for example in helping people to fill out complicated forms and the like. These tasks actually require people.”

“My sense is that portions of the government are being starved for human resources, in fact,” he said, citing well-publicized backlogs at the Social Security Administration and other agencies in recent years, and severe problems for taxpayers trying to get their phone inquiries answered by the IRS.

“In my observation, the big revolution in technology has already happened in the federal government,” Kogan added. “When I started in the federal government—for the Budget Committee in the House of Representatives, in the 1970s—we had just about as many typists as we did budget analysts. We wrote our figures down manually into budget lines—and we checked each other’s work before we passed it on the typists. Now there are practically no typists and fewer administrative people.” 

The different kinds of administrative personnel “have been hurt worse than the other, more highly-trained jobs, you see?” he said.

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Contributors

Edward A. Zurndorfer Certified Financial Planner
Mike Causey Columnist
Tom Fox VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service
Mathew B. Tully Legal Analyst

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