“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has,” mused American anthropologist Margaret Mead.

Big things often start with small teams with the mind to imagine and the nerve to try. Volunteers have come together to make transport more accessible; support minority groups and simplify critical Covid-19 data.

A small unit within the finance division in Singapore’s Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) kickstarted a ministry-wide automation movement. Their success with building their own bots has led to 29 more that are now at work across police, immigration and prison offices. GovInsider spoke with Kelly Lim, Senior Director (Finance and Admin Division) and Norman Tan, Director, Finance Transformation Office from MHA to learn more.

Where it all began

MHA launched its very first Robotic Process Automation (RPA) tool in 2019 for a complex payment process. RPA is a type of software bot that is particularly good at taking over tiresome, repetitive tasks – the perfect assistant for a finance office.

This bot helps to send vendor invoices to public officials, so they can validate it and confirm that the goods or services were delivered well before MHA sends payments. If they don’t respond within a certain time, the bot triggers a reminder email. This used to be a manual, long-drawn process, says Tan.

The bot had fairly humble beginnings for a tool that made such a big difference for the department. It was created by four officials who had zero prior training in RPA, including Tan. “The officers actually picked up the skills on their own,” Lim says.

How RPA has helped

The RPA project was cause for great excitement within the department. Tan remembers when this first bot was launched, down to the minute. “It was like giving birth to the first baby. We were really very thrilled and happy about it,” Lim shares.

Her team was eager to share its progress with the rest of the finance teams across MHA. Today, the ministry has 30 bots in action across its various offices, including the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority, Singapore Police Force and Singapore Prison Service. These have saved the ministry 5000 man hours a year, notes Lim.

Automating mundane tasks has also allowed officers to take on more strategic work. They were able to focus on expanding e-payment options for citizens, for instance.

This gave the ministry a “head start”, so it was prepared to switch to online payments when the pandemic hit, notes Lim. Citizens can now pay for all MHA services digitally, from passport application fees to traffic fines.

Outside of finance, RPA is also helping the ministry screen job applications and improve employee training. One bot finds gaps in staff skillsets and recommends courses to attend, Lim explains.

Lim even has a bot that sends her reminders of her employees’ birthdays, then automatically brings up an email greeting template for her to customise. “It really warms and touches them when they receive it,” she says.

“I can attest to that. I got the greetings from my boss four months ago,” Tan chuckles.

Build-a-bot workshop

MHA is now training more employees to build their own bots. It runs regular workshops for finance staff across the ministry.

These are designed to help officials find relevant uses for RPA in their daily work. They have to come to class with a potential use case in mind, Lim says.

They then spend two days in a classroom, and another two days scripting the bot under the trainers’ guidance. They will also learn how to maintain and refine the bot.

The ministry has trained 90 finance officers to date, along with another 20 colleagues from other departments. Lim’s team hopes to train all finance officers who may need RPA in their work by the end of this year.

Lim’s team has also created a bots library that contains all the bots the ministry has ever built – “something like an app store”, she explains. Officials who want to dip their toes into bot-building can study how existing ones are scripted, and modify them for their use.

The department does regular exchanges with other agencies as well, including the education ministry, tourism board and the public sector’s central finance and HR arm VITAL. Developers come together to share challenges and insights so they can learn from one another, Lim says.

Lessons from building bots

What lessons has the team picked up from its first two years of building RPA? Tan shares three tips.

The first step is to rethink each step of the process and cut any unnecessary bits, Tan says. “We never want to automate inefficiency.”

Next, think about how to digitise the parts of the process that are not yet happening in a computer. “We know that this is a software bot that is working with systems,” he notes.

Finally, always involve the person who will be using the bot. “They know exactly where the pain points are, and the areas that can be cut away,” Tan explains.

Getting their hands dirty

Governments are used to outsourcing the building of tech tools, but Lim’s unit was determined to develop RPA capabilities in house right from the start. “We thought that it would be more sustainable to have an organic capability within, than to over rely on the external consultant,” she says.

This would also allow MHA to expand RPA’s uses in the future. “Our processes don’t stay static,” notes Tan. “If you don’t have the skillsets to maintain these bots, you will have to bring those vendors back every time you need to even do minor tweaks.”

Big things can sometimes have small beginnings. MHA’s automation shift started with a team of four, but is quickly expanding to make waves in finance divisions across the ministry.