Good morning, everyone. This is meeting number 140 of the Standing Committee on Public Accounts for Thursday, May 30, 2019.
I would like to remind colleagues and guests at this committee today that we are being televised, so please, if you wouldn't mind—especially those in the audience as well—could you mute your phones? It would cause less disruption. Thank you.
We're here today in consideration of report 1, “Call Centres”, of the 2019 spring reports of the Auditor General of Canada.
We're pleased this morning to welcome many guests. First of all, from the Office of the Auditor General, we have Mr. Sylvain Ricard, our interim Auditor General of Canada, and Jean Goulet, principal. From the Treasury Board Secretariat, we have Mr. Alex Benay, chief information officer of the Government of Canada. From the Department of Employment and Social Development, we have Graham Flack, deputy minister of employment and social development, and Ms. Leslie MacLean, senior associate deputy minister of employment and social development and chief operating officer for Service Canada.
From the Department of Citizenship and Immigration, we have Ms. Lori MacDonald, acting deputy minister, and Harpreet Kochhar, assistant deputy minister, operations. From the Department of Veterans Affairs, we have General Walter Natynczyk, deputy minister. I'm glad to see that you made it here and your driver got you here safe and sound. We also have Michel Doiron, assistant deputy minister, service delivery. Last, from Shared Services Canada, we have Paul Glover, president, and Raj Thuppal, assistant deputy minister, networks, security and digital services.
We have a number of people to hear from first, but the one we always like hearing from before everyone else is our Auditor General.
Mr. Ricard, please.
Thank you for this opportunity to present the results of our recent audit report on call centres. Joining me today is Jean Goulet, the principal who was responsible for the audit.
In this audit, we looked at the call centres of three departments: Employment and Social Development Canada, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, and Veterans Affairs Canada. 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 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. ln 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. ln addition, more than a million callers gave up waiting and hung up. And callers who did manage to get through to an agent sometimes had to wait up to a half an hour or longer.
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 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 provided callers, and the call centre for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada did not have a standard on how long callers would have to wait to speak to an agent once they were in the queue. 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. ln addition, after five years of a call centre modernization project, Shared Services Canada has managed to upgrade only 8 of 221 call centres, and it has no plan for the remaining 213.
We made five recommendations. 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, Mr. Chair, for the invitation to appear before your committee. I'll begin with a few brief remarks and I'll be happy to take any questions you may have.
My name is Alex Benay. l'm the Chief Information Officer of Canada at the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat.
I am responsible for providing strategic direction and for the implementation of policies relating to service, information management, information technology, security, privacy and access to information across the federal government.
The finding in the Auditor General's most recent report identified opportunities where Treasury Board policy direction can be strengthened to better support improvements to call centres. The Auditor General made several recommendations that will help the Government of Canada fulfill its commitment to improve service delivery to Canadians.
Over the past few years, TBS has developed various policy instruments to help departments take a more client-centric approach to the design and delivery of services, including the development and publication of service standards. While we've made progress, we agree that there is still much work to be done.
l'm glad to say that we have already begun this work. Currently, the Treasury Board Secretariat is reviewing existing policy instruments, with the goal of identifying opportunities to strengthen policies to better support improved services through all service delivery channels, including call centres.
For example, we recently introduced a set of digital standards that will help guide departments and agencies in designing better services for Canadians. One of its key principles is to design and develop services with users in mind and to work with them to understand their needs and the problems we want to solve. While they may be called digital standards, they are, in fact, applicable to all the service delivery channels whether they are offered online, in person or by telephone.
In spring 2018, the government approved targeted amendments to the policy on the management of information technology and the policy on the management of information, setting the foundation for the long-term development of a comprehensive policy on service and digital for the Government of Canada.
This proposed policy will build on the client-centric principles of the current Policy on Service, and provide direction for the design and development of seamless, integrated services that meet the needs and expectations of the Canadian public.
We're also working on enhancing our existing guidance and tools to support the development and publication of clear and consistent client-centric service standards. Both the proposed new policy and its supporting directive and guidance will incorporate changes to ensure that government services have comprehensive and transparent client-centric standards, related targets and performance information for all service delivery channels in use, including call centres.
The Treasury Board Secretariat will continue to work with federal departments and agencies to ensure service standards for call centres are more consistent, meaningful and transparent to Canadians.
In closing, I look forward to your committee's report and recommendations on this important issue.
Thank you for your time, and I'll be happy to answer any questions you may have.
The Auditor General's report on call centres issued five recommendations, two of which were addressed to our department.
The first one states that we should review how we manage incoming calls to improve access to agents. The recommendation adds that the department should consider practices such as allowing callers to decide if they prefer to wait, use self-service options, or have the call centre call them back.
The second recommendation states that departments 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, as mentioned by Mr. Benay.
The recommendation adds that we should publish call centre service standards and performance results in a transparent and consistent way, and we should verify the results to confirm accuracy.
I will turn now to the first recommendation. There have been two limiters on our performance.
The first is outdated technology. Our legacy technology was limited in terms of having a hard cap on the number of people who could be put in the queue, which has resulted in callers being sent back to the interactive voice response system at peak times. It also didn't allow us to shift calls between our call centres to manage the load. You could have an individual who would be directed to one call centre, and once they were in that queue the technology did not allow us to shift them to one of our different call centres, which may have had agents available.
On this point, ESDC secured funding in budgets 2017 and 2019, which provided $27.3 million to migrate ESDC's call centres from this outdated technology to a modernized telephone system. As a result, we are well on our way to addressing the issues and are currently in the middle of migrating the new call centre platform that was procured by Shared Services Canada. The new platform is called the “hosted contact centre solution”, and it can provide the modern client-centric services Canadians should expect.
Over the last two years we have worked closely with Mr. Glover and his team at Shared Services Canada on the design, building and testing of the new technology.
We successfully migrated our Employer Contact Centre in October 2018, and we just migrated our Canada Pension Plan and Old Age Security call centre on May 11th.
Two of our three call centres have successfully migrated to the new platform. For the employer contact centre, which was the first, they have had 100% accessibility to agents since early January. This means all callers are now able to access a queue to speak with our call centre agents.
Learning from those lessons, on May 11 we successfully migrated our second major set of call centres, that is, the CPP and OAS call centres. Again, we have near 100% accessibility since that migration has happened. Our employment insurance call centre will be migrated next. Extensive work is under way for this migration, which is planned for the fall of 2019.
The second limiter on our performance was a significant gap between the call demand volume 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 seen significant improvements in both our accessibility to agents and our service standard.
In terms of accessibility, to give a sense, in 2015-16—before those recent investments—our accessibility level was 31%. That has risen to 66% in the most recent year, and, as we indicated, after we have successfully migrated the EI centre to the new platform, we expect that to dramatically improve as it has in our other two centres.
In terms of wait-time service standards, in 2015-16, we were at 37% for EI. We are currently, in 2018-19, at 67%, and, as a comparison, for our CPP and OAS standard—and the standard is 80%—we have been tracking at 76% in the most recent year.
These improvements meant that we were able to increase the number of calls answered by agents from 3.4 million to 4.6 million annually. They also 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 the 10-minute standard, we are not yet at our target of 80% of calls being answered within 10 minutes.
With respect to the other Auditor General recommendation impacting our department, ESDC has consulted with clients through multiple surveys to obtain their feedback. Overall, the feedback has been positive, with a majority of clients finding the wait time of under 10 minutes to be reasonable.
In our 2017-18 client experience survey, 82% of respondents said they were either “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with the overall quality of our services received through ESDC's specialized call centres. Currently the department is in the process of reviewing the preliminary results of the 2018-19 client experience survey, which will continue to track the performance of our specialized call centres and provide us valuable feedback on our performance from a user perspective.
With respect to the issue of verifying of results, we have high confidence in the accuracy of our results, given that the technology we use automatically tracks them. However, after the Auditor General's recommendation, we reviewed the data covered by the OAG, which consisted of more than 7.9 million calls from June 2018 to January 2019, and the review confirmed that our reporting results are extremely accurate, within plus or minus 0.05%.
Going forward, Employment and Social Development Canada, or ESDC, will enhance its publishing of 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, as encouraged by the Treasury Board Policy on Service.
We would now be happy to answer your questions.
Mr. Chair, thank you for inviting me to address this committee once again.
Canada is an increasingly popular destination for people who want to move to or visit this country. Every year, IRCC interacts with millions of clients including applicants for electronic travel authorizations, visas, permanent residents, asylum, citizenship and passports. Over the last five years, we've seen a significant increase in the number of clients who are seeking support, both on the telephone and by email. In fact, the recent federal budget recognizes growing demand, allocating new funds for increasing the number of IRCC call centre agents.
As demand for our services continues to increase, we recognize the need to transform the way we work so we can serve clients faster and strengthen our immigration system for everyone. While the volume of applicants is growing across our business lines, so too are our clients' expectations of quick, streamlined and electronic services. This means we must communicate with them more clearly and more often and ensure that our processes are clear, efficient and easy for both applicants and our employees.
The Auditor General's report highlights three key concerns we must address: difficulty in reaching call centre agents, lengthy wait times before speaking to an agent, and a need for clear, client-focused service standards upon which to measure performance and results. The findings of this audit also confirm that we must deliver accessible, timely and quality service to ensure that the country remains globally competitive in attracting newcomers. Today I'd like to describe some of the changes we are making.
IRCC employees provide support to clients through three channels: telephone inquiries, email assistance through the online web form, and social media. In addition to these channels, the department is working to provide clients with enhanced self-service options online.
The client support centre plays a significant role in communicating with clients. Last fiscal year, its agents responded to over 1.6 million client inquiries by phone and email, an increase of more than 12% from the previous year.
To improve the call centre and overall client experience, we have taken a number of actions. For economic permanent resident programs, we are piloting a new callback feature to give clients who reach our telephone wait queue the option of having an agent call them back instead of having to wait on hold. We are testing this functionality with this client group before expanding the service to other programs. We have also improved self-service features through our interactive voice response telephone messaging. This makes it easier for callers to obtain general and case status information without having to speak to an agent.
Budget 2019 announced $42.9 million over two years for IRCC to provide clients with better access to support when they need it. This funding will allow us to hire more call centre agents and expand some local Canadian office hours in 2019, and to expand hours of operations at the client support centre in 2020. As well, IRCC has lowered its email response time, from 31 business days in June 2017 to less than five business days as of March 2019. The additional funding received in budget 2019 will help to further reduce this email response time.
We know that to really address call volumes we need to address the root of the problem. One of the key reasons that people call and utilize ATIP processes is for information on their case status. We also receive many calls from people inquiring about the renewal of their permanent residence cards. We are making progress in reducing processing times in almost all of our permanent residence streams and have recently brought processing times for permanent residence cards down considerably. We anticipate that the progress we are making in these key areas will help reduce call volumes.
IRCC continues to look for new ways to improve the client experience and provide access to information. To provide clients with the information they need and to strengthen online access, the department has taken steps to make it easier for clients to navigate our website and to submit their online applications 24 hours a day.
Promoting self-service online for clients has been a priority. Our online help centre has over 1,100 questions and answers to top inquiries. We assure our web content is easy to use and understand, by writing in plain language at about a grade 8 reading level. We also optimize our web content to ensure it ranks high in search results, making it easier to find information. I think it's important to note as well that, before we launch new tools on our web templates, we do usability testing with people outside our departments and with clients.
Tracking the progress of case information is a high priority for many of our clients. To this end, we are testing new ways to better display case status information, to communicate processing times and to allow clients to track the progress of their applications. Our overall goal is to help clients with simple inquiries to access the information they need online, reduce their need to speak to an agent and, therefore, give agents a greater ability to focus on more complex cases.
IRCC is also working to finalize and publish service standards for its client support centre in our support services to make the department more accountable in its actions.
Before closing, allow me to note our actions to strengthen our ability to address a new and rapidly growing development: the substantial increase of social medial inquiries. In 2018, IRCC answered more than 130,000 social media general inquiries, seven times the total of the previous year and something we expect to continue to increase.
To help us manage these increasing volumes on social media, last fall we launched Quaid, a social media chatbot that responds to clients' general questions about immigration and citizenship. Quaid uses artificial intelligence to answer general questions from our clients on Facebook Messenger and continues to learn as it engages with people. Although this project is in its early stages, we expect Quaid will become more sophisticated with time and will improve our ability to interact with our clients.
Providing excellent client service is imperative so that Canada continues to remain globally competitive to attract visitors, students, skilled workers and new Canadians, the people who directly contribute to our overall economic, cultural and social prosperity. We will continue to act on our vision to transform how we interact with clients and provide the best possible support in the long term.
I'm happy to take any questions. Thank you, Mr. Chair.
Mr. Chair, ladies and gentlemen, good morning.
I appreciate the opportunity to appear today to address ways to improve our services to our veterans.
Our mission at Veterans Affairs is to enable the well-being of our veterans and their families, as well as commemorating the service and the sacrifice of all those who wore the uniform of Canada's armed forces.
As such, we appreciate the attention the Office of the Auditor General has brought to the services that we provide.
The bottom line up front is that the department accepts all of the recommendations and will develop a comprehensive action plan to implement all of the recommendations as soon as contracting and technology will allow. We appreciate how important it is for veterans to be able to communicate with the department in the ways and means they choose. We provide a broad range of options. They may choose a toll-free telephone service access through our website, through web-based My VAC Account secure messaging, over social media or by visiting in person any one of our 38 offices across the country.
lt is gratifying to see the number of veterans, both young and more experienced, connecting with the department through the online services offered on 'My VAC Account'. Through it, veterans can apply online for benefits and services, upload documents to complete their applications, track the status of their applications, view summaries of their benefits, and connect directly and securely with staff.
My VAC Account, which is our online web service, provided service for over 91,000 veteran users as of this past April, including serving members and veterans of the Canadian Armed Forces, veterans of the Royal Canadian Mountain Police and all of their family members. Monthly traffic is about 160,000 log-ins and continues to grow month over month.
Still, our national contact service network remains an important means for many of our veteran clients to communicate with the department. Our latest results show that 79% of calls are answered by an agent and that the average wait time for our clients is about five minutes. Clearly there is room for improvement, and we are committed to doing so.
Turning to service standards, it should be noted that the department regularly reviews our objectives to understand what we're doing right, and where we need to improve. Our 2017 External Service Standard Review found that our service standards were appropriate. Therefore the tasks at hand are to up our game, focus on improving processes, and reduce turnaround times.
We agree with the recommendations on service standards in the Auditor General's report and will seek veteran feedback when planning any future changes to service standards. In the near term, we are pursuing an approach to employ post-phone call survey responses to measure veteran satisfaction.
The Auditor General's report found that we did not always consider the needs of our veteran clients when making decisions about call centre services. One specific example is with respect to teletype service. When the department stopped offering a teletypewriter service for the hearing disabled, there was no indication from our records as to the rationale for this cut in service, nor whether there was consultation with veterans. This is not appropriate service.
As such, we are reversing the decision to ensure that all veterans, regardless of their injuries, can access our call services. We are also committed to ensuring that veterans with hearing difficulties can communicate with the national contact centre network.
With this goal in mind, we are extending our teletypewriter services that are currently in place for the veterans who are in crisis but with hearing difficulties to all the types of the calls handled by our call centre. We have identified a teletypewriter solution that seamlessly integrates with our current suite of equipment and will implement it in partnership with Shared Services Canada by the end of March 2020 or sooner, if at all possible.
Going forward, we also commit to considering the input of those we serve when making any plans that will affect veterans.
Members of the committee, Veterans Affairs Canada's mission is to support the well-being of our veterans. We are committed to improving our performance to be veteran-centric and strive for service excellence.
I thank the Office of the Auditor General for so clearly showing us how we could better serve our veterans and their families. Veterans Affairs Canada has already embarked on addressing all the recommendations in the report.
Thank you very much.
Mr. Chair, thank you for this opportunity to speak to the committee and answer your questions concerning the Auditor General's report focused on call centres.
As I'm sure you are aware, Shared Services delivers a wide range of IT services to departments that support the delivery of government programs and services, including call centres.
Since arriving at Shared Services, I've had the pleasure and opportunity to meet with employees from across the country who are doing amazing work delivering those services. Through their hard work, we've been making important progress.
Over the last number of years, we've closed over 200 outdated data centres and opened three new, large, state-of-the-art ones that are more efficient, more reliable and more secure. These modern, enterprise data centres provide our clients with modern IT infrastructure that improves their services and program delivery.
Just last month, Shared Services Canada announced a renewed agreement between us and Microsoft Canada on a new suite of modern digital communication tools for public service. Through this agreement, we will provide over 400,000 federal public servants in over 100 departments with a suite of Office 365 tools that will enable them to deliver timely and citizen-centred services to Canadians.
We're putting a renewed focus on strengthening our IT infrastructure to ensure that it is secure and reliable and that it responds to the needs of Canadians. These initiatives will help improve the services we provide to departments, including the topic we're here to discuss today.
We acknowledge, as the Auditor General reported, that Shared Services is responsible for providing and maintaining the IT infrastructure, including the call centres for all 221 federal departments. This includes call centres internal to government and those that service the public.
Through the hosted contact call centre project, we are making critical citizen-facing call centres more flexible and accessible. We are currently migrating eight contact call centres that make up nearly 50% of all the calls the Government of Canada receives. Seven out of these eight contact call centres have been successfully migrated, and we're continuing to work with the departments to ensure that the service is working for them and for the people who call them.
Turning to the Auditor General's report, we accept the recommendation in the report, and I am pleased to say that we are already hard at work on the items noted in the report. Allow me to provide a few updates.
We agree with the Auditor General's recommendation that Shared Services Canada should consult with the Treasury Board Secretariat of Canada to ensure that our call centre modernization initiative is in line with the secretariat's government-wide approach to services. Supported by a third party assessment of the hosted contact call centre solution, we determined that not all of the 221 call centres require a full-featured, high-availability system that can handle sensitive information. In short, different call centres have different requirements. That is why we've revised our strategy, from implementing a single solution that will address all contact call centre requirements to one that ensures a best-fit solution in terms of cost and requirements.
The assessment concluded that the hosted contact call centre solution would meet the requirements for the government's most complex contact centres. The Canada Revenue Agency and the Employment and Social Development Canada call centres were chosen to migrate first, as they are the most complex public-facing contact centres and the systems most urgently in need of attention.
To ensure that moving forward we have a clear understanding of the requirements for the remaining call centres, we are working with our partners to provide information such as call volume as well as the security profile of the information they are exchanging with Canadians. This is an important part of our next steps, to help us understand which systems will be right for which call centres and to ensure we provision the appropriate technology. We expect to have all of this data collected by the end of June.
At the same time, we are assessing options to modernize centres that are running on older technologies or with contracts that are expiring in the next few months. The updated plan will take into consideration contract end dates, end-of-life technology and departmental readiness to ensure that migrations are prioritized appropriately and executed successfully.
We are working with federal organizations to support existing services while modern solutions are being implemented. We are also working with departments to update their inventory for the remaining contact call centres and their requirements to identify the most cost-effective solutions for modernization. We are well on track to deliver this strategy by next month.
By the fall, our goal is to have established a prioritized list of contact call centres to be modernized based on the factors I have explained today such as the age of the centres, the number of outages, the call volumes and the sensitivity of the information they deal with.
Our goal is to provide technology supporting improved customer response, improved experiences and more reliability, including for those with accessibility requirements.
This concludes my opening statement.
I would now be happy to take questions from the members of the committee.
Over the past seven years there has been a number of factors that have impacted our call rate at the call centre. Certainly, there were cuts in 2012. There was reorganization. There were significant issues from a technology perspective, and on top of that, we had dramatically increasing volume rates. As programs change, the volume of calls and answer rates go up. Introducing new programs into the system, on top of the volume of clients coming into the country, has an impact on our call rate.
As a result of that, we've tried to break that down and deconstruct it in terms of what issues are most impacting us, what people are calling about and how we manage the volume beyond just answering the phone. This is why we've gone to things like email responses, telephone inquiries, call-back options, as well as looking at how we can use social media to respond to people's general inquiries.
One thing we found is that people are using the call centre to ask questions of a very general nature. That's required us to turn to our website to try to improve that, so that we can have a positive impact on the volume of our calls, and reduce that. Then we can introduce new technology, as indicated in my opening comments, around using artificial intelligence to serve clients in a better way.
We're trying to move from just a telephone call to a multi-pronged approach that serves clients to meet their needs, regardless of the kind of information that they're looking for, in a way that has a positive impact on the volume of calls.
Good morning, everyone. I guess we'll cut right into it.
Looking at this report, it's incredibly disappointing to me, and I think we have to point that out. It shows that the government has failed to help eight million Canadians, and that's a huge number. These Canadians had questions about services like EI, CPP and OAS. It's unacceptable that it takes, on average, looking at this, 32 minutes to reach an agent at these departments. Many Canadians have been hung up on or they've been provided with inaccurate information.
I'm a new member of Parliament, and I hear from constituents all the time. These departments.... We serve the people of Canada, and this is probably one of the most frustrating and upsetting things for Canadians, that they don't get hold of government departments to receive the services they require and, quite frankly, are entitled to.
I have a few questions that I want to talk about.
To the Department of Employment and Social Development Canada, it appears to me, reading the report, pages 10 to 12—I just want to get a handle on that—that you've rejected calls by the Auditor General to track those who hang up before the 10-minute standard wait time has passed. Is that true?
To respond to the member's question, it will be Shared Services that is responsible for the provisioning of that infrastructure and working with the vendor community and departments to make sure that we provide solutions in line with the needs of those departments.
As I said, we started with those that were the most complex and represented almost 50% of the total call volume. We're very confident, given that we've tackled the most complex, and almost half of the total government's call volume, that we can now scale at speed, having learned these important lessons, the remainder of the departments. We're working with them to make sure they don't get a system that is bigger and more complex than they need, or more expensive because it has security they don't need.
We'll be able now, having done the most complicated, to tailor solutions and move quickly to all of the remaining centres. We're working with them to get an inventory of their requirements and will layer on top of that the systems they have, contracts and end-of-life technology. By the fall, we'll have a plan for all of the remaining call centres.
Well, I'm noting it because it particularly matters to me. It's the last one I'll do in my whole life.
There are an awful lot of bureaucrats who are saying, “Yes!”
Voices: Oh, oh!
Mr. David Christopherson: However, it's unfortunate. I would have preferred to end on a positive note. That's not possible with this one.
I agree with my colleague in terms of the amount of time available. It's really hard to know where to focus in.
Look, the late Michael Ferguson's mantra was, “Do service well.” This is the opposite. This is doing service lousy. To me, this report highlights the importance of audit reports and having these things come forward. That's why it's such a disgrace that the current government is not providing the Auditor General's office with the money it needs to follow the audit plan it has for next year, including a study on cybersecurity.
As you know, Chair, I will be using every opportunity to underscore that insulting, disgusting decision by the government, and it's nothing less than that. That's what autocrats do. They hide. That's what this government is doing. I can only hope that before this Parliament rises we can get them to change their minds.
I want to give a compliment to the deputy of Veterans Affairs. I want to say, sir, that one of the things I enjoyed when I was a solicitor general was to work with police in a very similar culture, and that is that things tend to be straight up front. There's not a lot of BS. There's not a lot of fog. There's not a lot of uncertainty—it's this, this or this, or it isn't.
I really liked that you came in and said.... There were a couple of compliments in here, but you were good enough to mention this, and I'm asking other deputies to pay attention, because there is something to be learned here. In your presentation you said:
When the department stopped offering a teletypewriter service for the hearing disabled, there was no indication from our records as to the rationale for this cut in service, nor whether there was consultation with veterans. This is not appropriate service.
That's what I like to hear from a deputy minister. Roll in here, and when something has failed, say so. It goes a long way.
Then he goes on to say, “As such, we are reversing this decision”. I'd like the government to get into the habit of that and reverse their decision in terms of funding the Auditor General.
That's the way the deputies should be coming in here, and this is what has frustrated me. For Shared Services, I have to tell you, the stuff we hear in terms of the justification for nonsense is just mind-boggling.
Again, I would give one example from Immigration and Refugees. The deputy this morning said, “Providing excellent client service is imperative”. What they should have said was, “Providing excellent client service is imperative and we failed.” That's what they should have said.
On page 8 of the report, paragraph 1.28 states:
We found that call centres were not focused on the needs of their clients when making decisions about call centre services and how they set service standards.
I'm going to run out of time quickly, and I know that. I'll just wait for the gavel to drop.
I'm glad to see that Treasury Board is saying that they're going to change their existing policy instruments, because at the end of the day, when we want to change behaviour, it's based on both the individual behaviour of employees and the policies that are being followed. If the policies aren't on there at that level, then we can't very well expect the departments to consider it a priority when the guiding Treasury Board Secretariat is not saying so. I am very pleased.
Again, these are some of the benefits that come out of the public accounts that really don't get registered as a dollar, but these things change behaviour and they change focus.
I have one question. It's not the most profound one I could ask, but it's the one that jumped out at me, I must say.
On page 15, at paragraph 1.60 about good old Shared Services Canada, the report says, “However, in order for departments and agencies to use these features”—new features for the phoning—“Shared Services Canada had to upgrade its existing information technology infrastructure—a task it overlooked during planning.” How can that be? How could something so important be overlooked during planning? It speaks to competency. It speaks to where senior management is not doing the job that they should.
Since this is the last public hearing, I would like to place on the record my sincere appreciation of Mr. David Christopherson for his long, long years of service, especially on this public accounts committee. We have had differences of opinion on several issues on several occasions but I do recognize the great work you have done in this public accounts committee—the most important committee.
General Natynczyk, I have to say that the services from Veterans Affairs Canada have improved tremendously during the last three and a half years. I have in Nepean a veterans advisory committee. One of the committee members is Ted Bransfield, who has personally assisted 387 members, to be exact, since they submitted their claims. He too is of the opinion that the service has improved.
From the cuts that your department had faced to this position, I think it's only because of a kind of frank acceptance. Whenever there was a shortcoming, I have seen that you don't hesitate to accept it and take remedial measures.
Ms. MacDonald, I am tempted today to talk on a slightly different subject. The CBC reported today that the lawsuits related to parental reunification have been settled and those people who went to the court have been given the option of applying—whereas hundreds of my constituents didn't get the same opportunity.
However, we are on a different subject so I can't deal with that.
Coming back, Mr. Flack, you mentioned that you had done the client experience survey, which found that 82% of the respondents were either satisfied or very satisfied. One of the previous Auditor General's reports on CRA call centres noted that the Auditor General conducted a study that found 36% of the answers provided by the agents were wrong.
Did your survey do that?
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair, for having me at this committee.
I would also like to take this opportunity to thank you, since this may also be one of your last committee meetings as a politician. We have had the opportunity to serve the public together.
I am happy to be here this morning.
I also want to take this opportunity to thank Mr. Christopherson.
Mr. Christopherson, keep your passion, we need this. I hope that the newcomers who will follow you will have the same passion. This morning, you expressed your indignation to us and, basically, we are here to reflect it. I must say I share it too.
Mr. Ricard, you tell us that it is very difficult to reach the government by phone. You tell us that it's like a funnel, people hang up, calls are transferred to automated systems: it's a real obstacle course.
Finally, as my colleague said, the system does not seem to be designed to meet the needs. We know this because it is our offices that people ultimately call when they cannot reach a government agency. That is what is happening. Fortunately, sometimes we call and obtain a little service.
In my opinion, the problem seems to me to be a leadership problem. There are many call centres, but everyone works somewhat in isolation.
This is my first question. What do you think of the comments that were made this morning?
I would also like to hear from you about the feedback you have received as a result of the initiatives that are being taken. Some of them are very interesting.
One of the things I was pleased to hear about is the initiative that Veterans Affairs Canada is going to put in place, a teletypewriter for the hearing impaired. I congratulate you on that, General Natynczyk.
There is also the electronic cabinet initiative. As a former minister, I can tell you that the quantity of documents we need is astounding. The computerization of documents is therefore a great initiative.
I also liked what you said, Mr. Flack.
You mentioned the accessibility rate for agents. I would like to hear more from you on this subject. Ultimately, when someone calls the government, they want a result.
Could you tell us a little bit about it? You have in fact made some interesting improvements.
Then, if I have time left, I would like to come back to the issue of leadership. This morning, it really seems to me that both Treasury Board and Shared Services Canada are a two-headed monster. In order for there to be leadership, a concrete vision, the message I am sending you this morning is that you must work together. As we have seen, there are many call centres that are not necessarily coordinated. Standards are the issue here.
Can you tell us about your agent accessibility rate?
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
I hope that our last meeting will be public, because it is on this occasion that we will honour you. I would like to thank you and Mr. Christopherson, as vice-chair. It has been a pleasure working with both of you. I learned a lot from Mr. Christopherson.
You have led our committee with great skill.
Clearly, I'm going to necessarily disagree with Mr. Christopherson. I don't think we are trying to hide anything as a government. In this instance, I will speak as a member of the government party.
I think the questions of the estimates and the credits, we will discuss it a little later on, but it's not trying to hide anything, it's trying to manage. We will get back to it.
With regard to the issue before us, in order to solve important problems, people wanted to ensure that a certain part of the public, who were not prepared for online services, would still adopt this approach, by eliminating the telephone option. I am not only talking about the government, but also about society as a whole, whether it is banks or store services. We forgot that many people still need the telephone. I find that outrageous.
In terms of this idea that you could ship everybody to services online suddenly and that you would shut down your call centres, and you don't need people to call you because it's online, not everybody goes online. This mentality or this philosophy, or whatever you want to call it, which has, unfortunately, infected all of our society because it's at all levels, private and public, is.... What we see now is that government has an even bigger responsibility of ensuring that citizens are able to reach it, but we tried too quickly to put everything online without preparing the population for it. There is an enormous mass of citizens who will never use online services and who will always need a phone call.
I would like all of you, if at all possible, to give me your feeling on that when you look at the service-centric mission you have given yourselves after this report.
Thank you. I'll respond to that.
As you mentioned, we have reduced the email response time to five days. Actually, we're working towards bringing it down further to three days. I must say there are other channels that we are also utilizing so that we can get better service quality for our clients. We call them “clients” because these are not necessarily Canadians, but also permanent residents, students, those seeking work permits and others.
In terms of our callback functionality, which is one of a kind, that we have started in the permanent resident economic line, what we did was this. Instead of having people wait online, we have given them the option that we can call them back in approximately the same amount of time as they would have to wait online. If it is 23 or 24 minutes, we call them back precisely in that time. We've also done a quality control survey on that and the quality control tells us 96% of those who received the callback are very satisfied with the quality in terms of reaching back. They have time to have their questions formulated. They do it once. There are no repeat calls from that.
We are following that and expanding that from the permanent resident economic line to also the family class. It is going to move forward and we are hoping that not only does it allow the clients to have a positive client experience, but also that we are able to provide the right kind of tailored information to our clients.
I thought so. Those are the four musketeers.
When we got here, as you'll recall, absolutely nobody had any experience doing public accounts except lonely me, and one of the biggest things about this committee, Chair...and I want to speak to you directly and include Madam Mendès as the lead for the government. The toughest thing to accept in this committee is that we have to completely change what we normally do when we walk through that door. This is a different universe. We're not sitting here as Liberals, Conservatives and New Democrats. We're sitting here as parliamentarians providing oversight, regardless of the party that's in power, and it's a non-partisan effort. That's easy to say and really hard to do.
Chair, I can't thank you enough for the leadership. I've been in your role and I did the same job for four years. It's not an easy job. I had the advantage of already having been on the committee for at least a decade. You came in cold and you've done an outstanding job. I've had a chance to travel with you and Madam Mendès internationally. We've all learned and brought back best practices from around the world, and I just want to say what an honour it has been to serve with all of you, Mr. Arya and everyone here now, but from the beginning, the four of us. This has been the most productive public accounts committee I've had the honour of sitting on, and I thank you all for that.
I have one question for the secretariat.
That's good. I'll just weave in my message and keep saying how wonderful you are, because you understand how bad it is that the government's not giving the Auditor General enough money to do his job. That's why I'm so pleased to see.... No, I won't do that.
I thank you, Chair.
Secretary, what troubled me, on page 16, 1.62 stood out. “We found that the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat developed a government-wide service strategy in 2017: the Government of Canada Clients First Service Strategy.” That sounds great. “The strategy prioritized providing services online but did not include call centres or mention the government-wide modernization of call centres, despite the fact that they continue to be an important way for clients to get information.”
That number is 25%, a quarter of all Canadians use that. How on earth did you get to the point where you were planning contact for services for Canadians, and never gave a thought to the phone? Twenty-five per cent of Canadians.... Given the fact that Michael Ferguson's mantra was, again, “Do service well”, don't measure how well you move paper or a message from one desk to another. Measure the outcome for citizens and how they are, or are not, receiving the services they're entitled to.
How could something this obvious—a quarter of all Canadians—be overlooked in this grand strategy?
I want to thank all the witnesses for being here.
I want to echo the comments made earlier by some of my colleagues, and to thank and acknowledge Mr. Christopherson for his contributions. He will leave an incredible void of knowledge and experience on this committee, and I know he will be missed.
I am not feeling well today, but I did manage to make it to committee, and I'm not feeling much better reading some of this in the report. Paragraph 1.13 from the Auditor General, the call centres “sent millions of calls back to the automated system or told callers to go to the website or to call back later”. If any of us as elected officials did that to our constituents, we'd all be out of a job. We really would. It's unacceptable. Imagine constituents calling our offices and we have an automated message telling them to check out a website or to call back later. Then they call back and they're put on a wait-list. That is unacceptable.
Paragraph 1.48, “At the end of our audit, five years after the federal government began to modernize the technology for all of its 221 call centres, the initiative was rolling out to only 8.” Really? I was on a travel website and a box kept appearing on my screen saying they had a live agent who could help me. In the world out there, people are being proactive, making sure there is good customer service and that people can get correct information and talk to somebody, whether it's on a website or on the phone.
Here we are talking about a call centre, which I do agree for a lot of Canadians is still the most accessible way, yet we can't even get the technology up to speed.
Mr. Benay mentioned earlier that the IT policy in the department had not been changed for 14 years. I find that incredible. Can you share some of the changes that were made to the policy?
We introduced the concept for new technology introduction, for example, with cloud technologies and other things that were directed. We were able to actually move to more service conversations in our policy instruments—that we do not do technology for technology's sake.
I think the lesson we've learned from that failure is the fact that at Treasury Board Secretariat we need to be able to be in a position to renew our policies much faster, especially in a space such as technology, for example, which, as we all know, moves very rapidly. Now what we're starting to do, for example, is that many of our directives have six-month refresh cycles, which we're starting to introduce, to make sure we do not get back into a similar position where we have not necessarily kept up with the times on our policy directions to departments.
Thank you very much for the question.
One of the things we do is client satisfaction surveys. We do user ability testing with people outside our department and with our clients. We have a centre they come to. We gather information from overseas—our VACs, our international offices overseas—and what we do is collectively look at what issues are being raised and what kinds of things are pain points that are coming up.
One of the issues that has been identified to us is the issue of being able to communicate in the language of their choice. What we have looked at is how we actually create a system that meets the greatest needs of people in terms of being able to use a language.
In our call centre, we use both French and English, and we've built into our system the capacity to use interpreters for people who don't have capacity in those two languages. We took the information from the feedback that was received to determine what the right level is for using that plain language on our Internet. Consistently, it has been in that zone of that grade 8 plain language area, but at the same time, we continue to get feedback from our clients to finesse that as we update our programs.
Thank you very much, Mr. Sarai.
I want to thank all of our guests. It's a big table for a good reason. We have many here today and I think you've all given us more clarity on how you are going to address the challenges you have.
I think all members have made it abundantly clear that, as members of Parliament, we hear about this. We want to pass on to you that our expectation, as a public accounts committee, is that Canadians, taxpayers and people in need of government services can get them on a fair timeline and can get some kind of assurance that when they pick up the phone or go online, somebody is listening or is going to respond quickly. Thank you.
We have your action plan. Even though we're coming into an election—and a number of you have heard that this may be the last public meeting—be certain that the new public accounts committee that will begin next fall will pick up on where we've left off on studies such as this. It will be just as important for them to make sure we've seen some accomplishments and some of those goals met.
We're going to suspend. We're going to ask the crowd if they could leave fairly quickly. We have more business we have to do in the next now only 20 minutes.
Yes, I wish to exercise my right to move my motion. I move:
That the committee condemns the underfunding of the Office of the Auditor General; that the committee recommend that funding to the OAG be increased by $10.8 million annually; and, that the committee report this recommendation to the House.
The $10.8 million is the money they asked for. Now this doesn't necessarily affect the estimates process. It's a standalone motion that we're sending to the government. Some were wondering why this was in order since we can't increase on estimates. That's a separate process. We're not doing that. This is a standalone motion.
If I might, Chair, with your indulgence, I will say about Dillan that you will know that the Canadian Audit and Accountability Foundation is our prime resource consultant on how to professionally do our job and how to constantly up our game. You will know that in the last while I've joined the board of directors of the CAAF, and in part the idea of having Dillan come in was a recognition when we were doing some international work, particularly in Rwanda earlier in the year, that one of the key aspects of making committees work—this is the benefit of international travel when you get a chance to see how others do it—is the analyst.
If you think about the role the analysts play and what we do, they're that magic elixir that allows this to actually work because we have such trust in their professionalism. There was a recognition that when we're helping countries like Rwanda...and CAAF has a long-term commitment with Rwanda and I'll likely be going back there myself and possibly to Vietnam also to work with their public accounts.
Now CAAF has the ability through Dillan to not only provide expert advice and training to the Office of the Auditor General staff and auditors, and then also public accounts members like us, but also to reach out to the analysts and train them on the importance of the job they have. It's a real coup for us. I think it says a lot about the calibre of the people who are hired here on the Hill. I just can't say enough about Dillan and the work he does. I know he's going to help us do a better job internationally.
Now I will go to my motion.
“Hopefully” is a good word; you never know.
This is a very serious issue. I want to go straight to the key thing, to something that public accounts members, in my humble opinion, should be asking themselves. Exactly what the heck are you going to do in the next Parliament? Right now, under the current funding plan, when we get a chapter like this, it's part of a report. Within that report, which is done twice a year, we have anywhere from eight to 13 chapters. Today was one. This committee has been very efficient and effective at hearings. I've been in other parliaments where we didn't do a fraction of the work, and that was deliberate. It was deliberate by the government members of the day to slow down the work of this committee and prevent accountability.
Right now, as I read the plans, the Auditor General has one planned performance audit for the fall 2019 report—one—and in 2020 there are three. Meanwhile, one of the areas the Auditor General wanted to look at was protecting Canada's north. Now that won't happen. Every single member of Parliament who represents a northern riding should be going out of their minds that there will be no accountability on the service government provides to their constituents. It won't happen. As important as that is, guess what other area will not be looked at next year: cybersecurity.
Now, Mr. Arya and others were kind enough to mention my longevity on this committee. One of the benefits of that is that I was here the last time we got the report on cybersecurity. It scared the living heck out of me and out of everybody who read it. The government responded and said, we get it and we're going to get on top of this thing. The report showed us that we were one of the most vulnerable in the G7. It was really, really worrisome. I know that my memory is not the best, but this goes back at least eight or 10 years, so it's been a decade hence.
We were in a bad place then, so after a decade, in an area as important as cybersecurity, where we had a failing report from the Auditor General, does it not make common sense, does it not seem prudent, that the Auditor General would go back in to see how they're doing and how we fare in the current climate? I think that makes sense. That's exactly what we want an Auditor General to do. We want them to keep an eye on these things and say it's time to go back in there and look at it. That's not going to happen.
It begs the question.... I heard my colleague Madam Mendès, whom I respect enormously, defending the government. I have to tell you, though, that in the absence of some kind of austerity program, which is what happened the last time the Auditor General's budget was reduced, I think in 2011, the government said....
I'm losing my train of thought here. What happened in 2011? Remind me; where am I?
Thank you. I'm thinking three steps ahead and losing my current step.
There was a government-wide austerity program. Much to my chagrin—to tell you the truth—the Auditor General of the day said that they could live with those cuts because they saw themselves as being team players. They recognized that the government got elected with a mandate and that mandate was being carried out. Remember that they don't play politics. They follow the government, whomever the people decide will be that government. At the time, they felt that they could manage within the reduction and—here's the key thing, colleagues—not affect the work they do for Parliament. For us, that work is performance audits. It used to be called value-for-dollar audits.
I was raring for a good fight. Like today, I thought, “You're cutting the Auditor General?” What was I going to do, though? The Auditor General said they could do it. It's a non-partisan committee and if the AG says they can do it, then fair enough. They did it. We were not impacted by it.
This is the first time in Canadian history that the Auditor General has told Parliament that the executive branch is not giving them sufficient money to carry out their audit plan for the year ahead. As my colleague just said, they had to cancel them. Two of them were the ones that I mentioned. This has never happened before.
These are my last days here and I don't have to worry about getting elected. I have to tell you that I'm shocked it's you guys—the Libs. For one thing, it's the antithesis of what you talk about and what you ran on—accountability, transparency and service. A lot of my constituents bought into that argument because it's the kind of thing they want from government.
In the absence of an overall austerity program—which doesn't legitimize it, but at least provides an understandable context—there can only be two motivating reasons that I can think of. One is retaliation because we still have a funding mechanism where the very people the Auditor General audits also decide how much money they get. We just had an e-commerce report that didn't make the government look so good. They're the very people that the Auditor General had to sit down and negotiate with and they're the very people, for the first time in the history of Canada, who have said “no”. They recommended it up through the ministers and it's the ministers at the end of the day.
Don't kid yourself. We've all been around long enough. Staff reports matter. Staff recommendations matter. They got slammed by the Auditor General in that e-commerce report, yet they're the very same people they had to go to, cap in hand, to ask for funding—only this time they said “no”.
It's either retaliation—which would be unacceptable—or the government really is hiding from things like the cybersecurity report because they know what the last report said, and perhaps, I would assume, they know how much has been done or not done. There would also be people in government who would be very aware of what our threat level is, and whether it's improved in the last 10 years.
If you have enough arrogance to believe you're going to be the government when that report comes out, a sharp political move—unacceptable from an ethical point of view—that a good autocrat would act on is to make sure that audit doesn't happen. The thinking is that the price of taking the heat for not providing adequate funding for the first time in Canadian history is less than the criticism they would get when that report comes out.
I have to say, I'm just perplexed as much as anything. If it was perhaps another party in power that had a different view of accountability and transparency, that might help me understand the context. For the life of me, I can't understand. Well, I haven't yet had a chance to hear from colleagues officially, so I won't speculate until I hear what they have to say on the record on this issue.
This is big. I can remember Tyler and I sitting up at night trying to figure out how we could force the government to give us one particular piece of information that we needed in a key hearing. I would just get myself so wrapped up and concerned that we needed that information.
Parliament is entitled to that information. Parliament needs that information. As I remind people a lot, Parliament is supreme—not the government. Parliament decides who government is. Parliament decides who the prime minister is. Parliament decides when the prime minister and the government get fired.
My colleague says “in principle”, but it is still the case.
When I look at something like this, where never mind a detail of information or a letter or a report that we need to do our job properly on an audit report, rather than that being what's in front of us, the issue is whether the bloody audit's going to be done, this is insane and I don't get the politics of it. That's why I say to the government members—through you, Chair, with respect—that I don't understand the politics of this.
Why on earth, on the doorstep of a federal election, would the Government of Canada pull funding or deny funding for one of the most motherhood departments in all of government?
The department and the person that I call the best friend Canadians have on Parliament Hill is the Auditor General, and in the ramp-up to an election, for the first time in Canadian history, the sitting government decides it's going to cut. That's assuming it's not cut but an increase denied, which has the effect of a cut.
Maybe Gerry Butts' leaving has left you with absolutely nobody with any strategic sense at all. I have to tell you that I was hoping that, once the you-know-what hit the fan, the message would go up through the system and there would be a minister somewhere who said, “Wait a minute, what?” I was a minister and you were a minister, Chair. You can't follow every single moving part, especially if you have a big ministry. You have to rely on your staff and you're approving things at a certain level. Trust me, $10.8 million, the finance minister of this G7 country almost spills that much in a week.
It's not about the money. It can't be, with $10.8 million. I think that's the number. That's chump change in terms of the federal budget, but in terms of the importance to Parliament, it's a thousand times greater.
If the politics make no sense—and they don't—there has to be another reason, and that's why I'm looking at this and I'm saying, there are only two that really come to my mind. It's revenge. It's Treasury Board officials—or if I'm wronging them, it's whomever the people are who sit down at the staff level and talk about budgets with our agents of Parliament. I remind colleagues that the OAG are not the executive's employees, not cabinet employees, but Parliament's employees, and this nonsense that we have a funding mechanism that says they have to go back to the very people they audit makes no sense.
The government—and I'll get to this a little later—made a commitment that it was going to provide an alternate mechanism. It hasn't happened. In fact, I didn't even know about this letter, but there was a letter in January of this year that went to the Clerk of the Privy Council, signed by all Parliament's—not the government's—officers, every one of them, basically saying, “You promised you were going to do this. It hasn't happened. We need it to happen quick.” That was January. Crickets!
So retaliation is.... I mean it's hard to believe in this country that something like that would happen, for those of us who know how this system works, but I'm desperately trying to find reasons that would explain to me why the government is doing this, because if we could figure out why they're doing it, then we can work at focusing on that and getting it unravelled. But for the life of me.... So that's one possibility.
The other.... I suppose there are three because there's also the unknown. Both of those could be wrong and there could be some other thing motivating it that I don't know. Fair enough, but when I look at that combatting cybersecurity and I think how important that is.... Think ahead. What if there was a report in a year or two that said we're more vulnerable than we were 10 years ago?