SBA: Please stop spanking bots

What better to blame – when all goes wrong – than the evil robotic thing you just inserted into your system.  Many of you saw the recent article in ABA Banking Journal where they blamed RPA for the “burden on their processing system and diminishing of its capabilities”.  We will discuss this debacle in a more detailed POV (stay tuned) but the crux of the issue here is a poorly run government IT function tinkering with software to try and process a mad scramble for many thousands of small business handouts from the recent Covid-19 stimulus package – and most likely in some weird virtual lockdown vacuum.  And it appears woefully understaffed.

In short, APIs + humans + bots need to work within system parameters, or we’re always going to have failures of scale like this one.

RPA is a highly useful tool to support this environment, but please let’s start deploying it as part of the overall tool-box

As we’ve said of late, the digital workforce that wasn’t finally has its burning platform chance to shine. Since global lockdown commenced, we’ve been tracking, talking, and learning about the ways in which enterprises and their service and technology partners are using automation to help them function. One of the most prevalent use cases in recent weeks is in the banking and financial services sector where lenders are using automation, largely, RPA, to support loan processing for government-backed loans. RPA is helping lenders grapple with massive loan volumes and get them submitted quickly so loans can be approved and dispersed.

Insert monkey wrench.

The U.S. government’s Small Business Administration (SBA) application and approval portal was overwhelmed with demand as a second tranche of government funds were made available on April 27. The funds are intended to support loans for small and medium-sized businesses (administered via banks) as part of the Payroll Protection Program (PPP) during the Covid-19 pandemic. The SBA E-Tran system receives the loan applications and then the SBA processes and approves them. The system struggled to handle the new surge of applications coming through and repeatedly crashed. As of Tuesday, April 28, the SBA prohibited the use of RPA bots in the application process.

RPA fail, right? Not exactly. It is actually the overwhelming success of a blunt instrument.

The HFS team dug in and spoke with a variety of ecosystem players – banks, software companies, and service providers to get the straight scoop. We also reached out to the SBA, but they have not responded. We view this as a case of RPA being used as a blunt instrument allowing any bank that invested in RPA to automate loan application submissions. RPA very legitimately helped banks and lenders process scads of PPP loans. This presented two immediate issues:

  1. The SBA E-Tran system crashed – it was way overburdened with hundreds of thousands of loan applications.
  2. Banks with automation were potentially able to submit more loan applications than those without thus more effectively accessing a limited pool of stimulus funds.

The SBA responded in a super butt-covering mode with its “NO RPA!!” edict. It will still allow loans to be automatically processed through APIs. So now banks are scrambling to convert their RPA processes to API-led. And the SBA assigned one person. Yep, one person to field all requests for API access. We hope this poor beleaguered contact has some help, but banks have reported the API access option is “very slow”. To address the potential of access bias for those firms with automation – deemed to be the larger banks – the SBA designated an eight-hour window on April 29 for lenders with less than $1 billion in assets to submit loans.

Bottom line: This SBA debacle is why you need nuance and a toolbox approach to automation to get desired results.

It’s too easy to say RPA failed. It’s more complicated than that. Really RPA was a blunt instrument here – for its speed to solution and ability to swiftly process loan applications and it worked remarkably well. Too well. It swiftly overwhelmed SBA’s E-Tran system – which was doomed to be overwhelmed anyway by these unprecedented volumes in a short period of time. But RPA exacerbated it and potentially gave access advantage to automation-savvy firms. While access through SBA’s XML API may allow for more efficient loan submission rather than the RPA model of going through the user interface and clogging the narrow pipes, this did not have to be an ‘either or’ situation. APIs versus RPA is not the point. Automation always lives in an ecosystem with upstream and downstream impacts and these were not adequately addressed. A better approach would have been a toolbox approach that leveraged RPA for loan preparation and access into legacy systems in the lenders’ shops, APIs for submission and humans for oversight with some substantial volume throttling to give the SBA’s system half a chance at doing its job. Automation cannot live in a vacuum.

(Cross-posted @ Horses for Sources)


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Founder and Chief Executive Officer of HfS Research, the leading global research analyst organization covering global sourcing strategies. Acclaimed Industry Analyst and Consultant who scribes the leading blog for the services industry "Horses for Sources".  Previously worked  at AMR Research (Gartner Inc),  Deloitte Consulting’s BPO Advisory Services, the  Everest Group and  IDC .  In 2010, Phil was named “IIAR Analyst of the Year” by the Institute of Industry Analyst Relations (IIAR). This is the most coveted global award for industry analysts in technology and services.