Mr. Chair, thank you for this opportunity to present the results of our recent audit report on call centres. Joining me today are Jean Goulet and Joanna Murphy, who were responsible for the audit.
In this audit we looked at the call centres of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada; Veterans Affairs Canada; and Employment and Social Development Canada, including the employment insurance as well as the Canada pension plan and old age security call centres. We also looked at whether the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat included call centres within the Government of Canada's service strategy and whether Shared Services Canada provided support to modernize call centres.
This audit is important because call centres are a key source of government information. This is especially true for people who are visually impaired, have intellectual or physical disabilities, do not have a computer or Internet access or the skills to use these technologies, or who live in rural or remote regions and do not have high-speed Internet access or cannot easily get to a government office.
Canadians make millions of calls to the government every year to get the information they need to make time-sensitive, important decisions. For example, they may be calling to ensure that they receive benefits on time or to find out about the status of an application.
Overall, we found that getting through to government call centres took time and persistence. In fact, we found that half of the 16 million Canadians who tried to speak with an agent could not do so. Seven million callers were redirected to an automated system, were told to visit the website, or were disconnected. In addition, more than a million callers gave up waiting and hung up.
We also found that service decisions were not driven by callers' needs. For example, departments did not offer callers the option of staying on the line or of getting called back when an agent became available.
The way in which call centres set service standards was not relevant to Canadians, transparent or consistent. None of the call centres we audited had service standards on clients' likelihood of reaching an agent or on the accuracy of the answers they provide to callers.
Regarding Employment and Social Development Canada, we found that when the department reported on its service standard to answer 80% of calls within 10 minutes, it did not include calls during which the caller hung up after reaching the queue. The department also published call centre performance results that were based on unverified data. Without service standards, callers cannot know what level of service they can expect from call centres.
And the situation is unlikely to improve in the near future. The government's clients first service strategy does not include call centres, though more than 25% of Canadians use the telephone to connect with the government.
In addition, after five years of a call centre modernization project, Shared Services Canada has managed to upgrade only eight of 221 call centres, and it has no plan for the remaining 213. We made five recommendations, including two to Employment and Social Development Canada. All organizations have agreed with all of them and have shared their action plans with us.
Mr. Chair, this concludes my opening remarks. We would be pleased to answer any questions the committee may have.
Thank you for your presentation this morning.
I think all of us as members of Parliament, certainly in my riding of Saint John—Rothesay, are inundated with people coming in the door frustrated with the system, with the centres. I don't think that's a political statement. I think everyone, regardless of party, has the same issue. My constituency assistant Jeannette Arsenault does a wonderful job. We talked about it this morning. Two more people came in this morning saying they're calling, not getting answers, being left on hold, nobody calls them back, and it just goes on and on.
With that being said, I have a great relationship with the employees of, say, the call centre in Saint John. It's a CRA call centre. I talk regularly to the employees who work there. They work for PSAC or UTE, and they're good people. They're frustrated. They go to work every day, and they want to do better. We all want this to be better.
Cultural shifts don't happen overnight; they happen over a period of time. Cultural shifts can happen for many reasons, but one of the reasons is an overall lack of support, funding, what have you. It's quite clear that what's happening with call centres didn't happen overnight. It evolved over many governments.
Your report is there for the record, but can you give us your thoughts on what it's going to take to fix this. It's one thing to say they're underfunded, but I think it's a bigger issue. I think you can say funding, but also how do you see this correcting, and over how much time? What's it going to take to change this culturally? Can someone elaborate on that?
Thank you very much for the invitation to appear before you today.
Thank you so much for inviting us to speak to you about this important Auditor General chapter on call centres and the service we provide Canadians.
I would like to point out that I am joined by my colleague Mr. Groen, the Assistant Deputy Minister responsible for Benefits Delivery Services.
Before going directly to the organization's response to the Auditor General's recommendations, I might take a minute or two just to talk about Service Canada and what we do.
For many Canadians, Service Canada is the face of the federal government, providing key programs and services, such as employment insurance, old age security and the Canada pension plan, along with social insurance numbers and passports.
For example, last year we would have received about 2.8 million applications for employment insurance; 99% of those would have been received online. We would have greeted more than eight million people at our in-person Service Canada centres or our outreach sites. We would have answered over one and a half million calls on 1-800-O-Canada, and received a staggering more than 539 million visits to the Canada.ca website.
At the same time, we receive more than 30 million calls per year at our employment insurance, old age security and Canada pension plan call centres.
Mr. Chair and members, as you're aware, the Auditor General's report on call centres had five recommendations, two of which, in your previous discussions, were addressed to our organization.
The first one stated that we should review how we manage incoming calls to improve access to agents, and it added that we should consider practices such as allowing callers to decide if they would prefer to wait, use our self-service options or have us call them back.
The second recommendation states that departments, including ESDC, should set call centre service standards that are relevant to clients, and that we should consider client feedback in line with TBS guidelines on service standards. The recommendation adds that ESDC should publish call centre service standards and performance results in a transparent and consistent way, and we should verify the results to confirm accuracy.
Let's turn to the first recommendation on improving access to agents. There have been two limiters on our performance, and I think these came up in your previous exchanges.
The first one is outdated technology. Our legacy technology quite simply limited the number of callers who we could put in the queue. This resulted, certainly at peak times, in callers' being bounced back to our interactive voice response system at those peak times. It also did not allow us to shift calls between our various call centre locations to manage the load.
We secured funding in budgets 2017 and 2019, which provided $27.3 million to migrate our big call centres from this outdated technology to a more modernized telephone system. As a result, we're well on our way to addressing this issue and are currently in the middle of migrating to a new call centre platform in collaboration with our colleagues at Shared Services Canada.
The new platform is called the “Hosted Contact Centre Solution”, and it can provide the modern client-centric services that Canadians have come to expect.
Over the last two years, we have worked closely with SCC and Canadians on the design, build and testing of the new technology.
I would note that in addition to an internal call centre for staff.... We went first with an internal-facing call centre. We then successfully migrated first the external-facing call centre, the one for employers, in October 2018, and we are very happy to note that we just successfully migrated our Canada pension plan and old age security call centre on May 11.
Both migrations have been very successful. The employer call centre has now had 100% accessibility to agents since early January. This means that all callers are now able to access a queue to speak with our call centre agents.
We started with a smaller one before moving to the pensions call centre so that we were able to leverage the lessons learned from that call centre and integrate them into the Canada pension plan and old age security call centre migration, which I'm really pleased to say has had 100% accessibility since our implementation on May 11.
Our employment insurance call centre will be migrated next. Extensive work is under way for this migration, planned for fall 2019.
Coming to the second key limiter on our performance, we had a significant gap between the call demand volume, particularly at peak periods, and the funding for agents available to respond to those calls. Budgets 2016 and 2018 provided $200 million over five years to increase the number of EI call centre agents. As a result, we have been able to increase our access to agents every year since.
In 2015-16, accessibility to EI call centre agents was at 31%. In 2016-17, after we received budget 2016 funding, we were able to onboard new agents, and accessibility increased to 43%. For 2017-18 we further increased accessibility for Canadians to 61%, and this past year, 2018-19, we reached 66% accessibility.
We certainly take seriously our responsibility to provide the best possible access to Canadians for this important service within the available resources.
I would note that this boost in accessibility meant that we were able to increase the number of EI calls answered by our staff from 3.4 million to 4.6 million a year. It also—and this is, I think, quite important—allowed us to reduce wait times to speak to an agent from an average of 14 minutes to seven minutes.
While these improvements have been significant, and our average wait time is well below 10 minutes, we are still not yet at our target of 80% of calls being answered within 10 minutes.
Concerning the Auditor General's second recommendation, I would like to talk about the efforts we are making to follow up on the recommendation relating to the relevance of our service standards and meeting the expectations of clients, of Canadians. For instance, we have consulted clients through multiple surveys to obtain their feedback. Overall, feedback was positive, with the majority of clients finding a wait time of under 10 minutes to be reasonable.
Moreover, our recent client experience survey in 2017-18 found that 82% of our respondents were either satisfied or very satisfied with the overall quality of service received through our specialized call centres.
Currently, we're reviewing our most recent client experience survey—just looking at the preliminary results—and that will enable us to continue to track the performance of our call centres, and of course provide us with valuable feedback on our performance.
I would note that all of that research and results are publicly available through Library and Archives.
In terms of verifying the results and our data, we have high confidence in the accuracy of our results given that the technology we use—and now I'm speaking about the old, outdated technology—automatically tracks that. When the concern was raised about the accuracy of the data, we did go back and look at the period that the Auditor General had identified, which was June 2018 to January 2019. That consisted of more than 7.9 million calls, and our review confirmed that our reported results were extremely accurate within plus or minus 0.05%.
Going forward, we will of course continue to improve the publishing of our call centre service standards and performance results through more frequent reporting.
As well, ESDC will continue to set service standards that are relevant to clients. We continue to work closely with the Treasury Board Secretariat to ensure that we comply with the current policy.
We will continue to monitor the performance of the call centres to ensure they are responding to the needs of Canadians, as part of our overall commitment to serve Canadians, whether they choose the telephone, in-person or digital channels.
Mr. Chair, we would now be happy to take your questions about the call centre chapter from the Auditor General.
Mr. Chair, I would be pleased to answer the question.
In my comments at the start of the meeting, I mentioned our two main challenges that affect our capacity to take calls, especially during peak periods. It's a key element of our challenge.
First, our technology is outdated. It did not allow us to implement many of the improvement options noted in the Auditor General's report, such as the ability to leave a message and ask to be called back. The new technology we are implementing will, frankly, offer us a range of options that we didn't have in the past. So, this is the first element.
The second element is specifically the availability of agents to respond during peak periods—I would like to stress this again. Let's take the example of the employment insurance program. We have two peak periods of work. Canada is a country with seasons. Winter gives us a lot of work for the employment insurance program. A second small peak occurs in the summer when schools close.
I mentioned the average waiting time for our call centres. To give you an idea of the magnitude of the problem, let's look at employment insurance. In peak periods, the average waiting time is about 12 minutes, but in the less busy months, it is about four minutes. When the volume increases, it's not even a matter of cutting off communication.
In summary, the number of lines was fixed and the technological options available were extremely limited. In addition, as I explained, there was also the number of agents available during peak periods.
Thank you, Mr. Chair.
I'd like to thank you both for being here once again. I've lost count of how many times you've been here, but every time, we learn something, and are better off for it.
I hope the committee will indulge me for about 30 seconds here. As we have no other scheduled meetings, today may be the last opportunity that I have to chair this committee.
I'd like to thank all of my colleagues, especially the vice-chair, MP Barlow, for the work that we've been able to accomplish together. On behalf of all the committee, I'd like to, as I often do, but especially today, thank the analysts and the clerk, both current and past, for the unbelievable amount of effort and dedication to this committee.
Of course, I thank the translation and technical staff, so that we can be heard, not just in this room, but all over Canada and the world.
I'll say a personal thank you to my staff, Andrew Cowie, who I'm going to embarrass a bit. His work and dedication to this committee has been amazing. Without him, we would not be where we are today. Thank you very much, everybody.
We are adjourned.