Voices from Accenture Public Service

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Automation will transform public sector finance—but when and how? The results of a recent Accenture survey of government finance leaders lay out the case. Our survey respondents expect about 41 percent of finance tasks to be carried out by technology within the next three years. That’s up from 29 percent today.

This “automation ambition” doesn’t surprise me. Instead of looking at digital technologies like robotic process automation, machine learning and artificial intelligence as science fiction straight out of Hollywood, finance leaders have a more realistic—and pragmatic—perspective. They know that these technologies can boost the efficiency and accuracy of routine tasks and processes. They also know that automation frees up human resources, allowing people to pivot to higher-value tasks and more strategic and satisfying work.

This interplay of humans and machines—the harmony of how each complements the other in a mutually-beneficial relationship—will be the most significant benefit of automation in public finance. Put another way, the automation story in public finance is as much—if not more—about humans as it is about machines. This is why leaders here must be thinking about employee buy-in and stakeholder engagement when they develop their automation strategies.

Rewards, not resistance

Public sector finance leaders are well aware of this issue. Just over half (52 percent) say employee resistance to working with non-human colleagues is a stumbling block to their plans to automate. Interestingly, only 38 percent of private sector finance leaders say they are encountering this resistance.

The best way for public finance organizations to address this resistance is by working with employees and their representatives. More specifically, by working with employees and thier trade unions to identify and communicate the benefits of automation to the government workforce. This move is so important to success because efforts to impose automation from above will only fan the flames of resistance.

Employees and their representatives need to understand how the automation of manual tasks can benefit their members with more rewarding jobs and potentially higher pay. When they understand that their jobs are not at risk, many employees will welcome the opportunity to trade repetitive work for more strategic tasks.

Some finance organizations have begun to move in this direction, and report promising results. At a federal agency in Germany, for example, a senior finance executive tells us that employees there are starting to enjoy the advantages of digitization. “There is no double work and paper can gradually disappear,” she says.

One step at a time

Nevertheless, finance leaders will need to proceed with caution, taking the workforce with them at the right pace. It may be necessary to use small-scale automation projects to establish employee buy-in and returns on investment before proceeding with more widespread implementation.

Even as employees and stakeholders become more informed about the positive aspects of the human-machine world, finance leaders cannot force automation on anyone. No matter how good the business case might be. This is why I expect the adoption of public sector automation to be slower than it is in the private sector. At least for the short term.

In my next post, I’ll continue exploring the results of our survey with a look at the search for new talent in public sector finance. What are tomorrow’s key skills? Where can finance organizations find them? I encourage you to read the survey results in details, and follow me on LinkedIn and Twitter if you aren’t already.

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