Good morning, everyone, and welcome. This is meeting number 82 of the Standing Committee on Public Accounts, Thursday, November 30, 2017.
I remind everyone today that we are televised again.
We also will try to leave time this morning for committee business. There may be 15 minutes or 20 minutes where we want to discuss one matter of business, and that will be at the end of the scheduled time today.
Today, we are studying “Report 2—Call Centres—Canada Revenue Agency”, of the 2017 Fall Reports of the Auditor General of Canada. As our witnesses, from the Office of the Auditor General, we have Michael Ferguson, Canada's Auditor General. We also have Martin Dompierre, principal, attending with him. From the Canada Revenue Agency, we have Bob Hamilton, commissioner of revenue and chief executive officer; Frank Vermaeten, assistant commissioner, assessment, benefit, and service branch; and Gillian Pranke, director general, call centre services directorate, assessment, benefit, and service branch. I thank you all for coming.
I understand that we have opening statements from our witnesses, and I would invite our Auditor General to begin.
Mr. Chair, thank you for this opportunity to discuss our fall 2017 report on Canada Revenue Agency's call centres. Joining me at the table is Martin Dompierre, the principal who was responsible for the audit.
Every year, taxpayers have questions about their taxes. The agency's telephone call centres are an important way for members of the public to obtain tax information, especially for those who do not have Internet access, those who are uncomfortable using computers, and those who cannot find answers on the agency's website.
Our audit looked at whether the Canada Revenue Agency's call centres provided Canadians with timely access to accurate information. We focused on calls received on three of the call centre's telephone lines—one for individuals, one for businesses, and one about benefit payments. We also examined the agency's methods of assessing and reporting on its call centres' performance.
Overall, we found that the agency did not provide timely access to accurate information.
We found that the agency blocked 29 million calls, which was more than half the calls it received. The agency monitored how long callers waited to speak with an agent. When the average wait time approached two minutes, the agency either blocked calls, usually by giving them a busy signal, or directed them to the automated self-service system.
The agency told us that callers would prefer a busy signal or an automated message to waiting more than two minutes to speak with an agent. However, the agency had not surveyed callers to verify this assumption. As a result, callers had to make an average of three or four call attempts in a week, and even after several attempts, some callers still didn't reach an agent.
Through our tests, we found that the rate of agent errors was significantly higher than what the agency estimated. Call centre agents gave us inaccurate information almost 30% of the time. This is similar to the test results of other assessors and significantly higher than the error rate estimated by the Canada Revenue Agency.
We found that the agency’s quality control system didn't test the accuracy of agents’ responses effectively or independently, so the results of its tests were unreliable. For example, in most cases, agents knew that their calls were being monitored, which may have encouraged them to change their behaviours to improve their performance.
Finally, the agency reported that about 90% of callers were able to reach either the self-service system or call centre agent. However, we found that percentage didn't account for the calls it blocked, which were more than half its total call volume.
Only 36% of all calls made to the agency's call centres reached either an agent or a self-serve system and lasted a minute or more. Furthermore, by blocking calls or redirecting them to the self-service function, the agency was able to report that it achieved its two-minute service standard for agent wait times.
We are pleased to report that the Canada Revenue Agency has agreed with all of our recommendations and has committed to taking corrective action.
Mr. Chair, this concludes my opening statement. We would be pleased to answer any questions the committee may have.
Thank you, Mr. Chair, for the opportunity to appear before the committee today.
As you mentioned, I am accompanied by Frank Vermaeten and Gillian Pranke from the agency, who have responsibilities in overseeing the CRA's call centres.
In my first year as commissioner, I can attest to the commitment of CRA's employees to improve services to Canadians, combat tax evasion and aggressive tax avoidance, and provide a fair and equitable administration of Canada's tax and benefits system.
I am here today to speak to you about the Auditor General's Fall 2017 Report concerning the CRA's call centres.
Mr. Chair, the Auditor General recommended that the CRA take action in three areas to address service delivery standards offered by its call centres: improving accessibility; strengthening the quality and accuracy of its responses; and enhancing program measurements and reports.
The agency agrees with the recommendations. We need to do better.
Service to Canadians is at the heart of the agency's mission, and it is a fundamental component of the minister's mandate, as articulated by the .
As requested, Mr. Chair, a copy of our action plan was provided to the committee members in advance for their review and consideration. The action plan identifies how the CRA will implement the Auditor General's recommendations and outlines its approach to support staff development, introduce new technology, and improve its operating systems and processes.
Let me assure you, Mr. Chair, that the staff who work at our call centres across the country, together with their colleagues responsible for information technology and reporting, are committed to implementing this plan. They have demonstrated integrity and innovation in their work to find solutions to improve the services they offer to Canadians, and I'm proud of the work that our employees carry out every day.
An important element of the action plan is to provide additional training and improved tools to these call centre agents to ensure they have the information and tools they need to deliver the services upon which Canadians rely. These improvements will include the introduction of tools to better assess agent readiness and proficiency.
The agency is also in the process of adopting a new and more modern call centre technology platform that will allow us to improve the services we provide to Canadians.
The action plan also identifies how the agency will update its service standards and reporting for call centres. We are committed to being more transparent with Canadians to ensure they know the level of service they can expect from the CRA and how we are performing against those expectations.
In advance of introducing this new technology, the agency has already taken a number of steps to improve and modernize its call centre service during the past year.
We have hired more call centre agents and we have improved our existing systems and processes to enhance Canadians' access to our call centres.
We have extended wait times from two to five minutes to reduce the chance of getting a busy signal, in line with one of the Auditor General's recommendations.
We have expanded the options available to callers through our interactive voice response system, which provides callers with self-serve options if they cannot access an agent immediately. Through these self-serve options, we have reduced the demand on our call centre agents so they can dedicate the time required to assist callers with more complex questions.
As a result of these changes, Canadians have higher success rates when they attempt to access the call centre telephone lines.
Since receiving budget 2016 funding, we have reduced by 50% the chance that a caller will get a busy signal when calling the income tax enquiries line. On average, Canadians will call the CRA approximately twice to speak with an agent, as opposed to four times as at the time of the Auditor General's report. We are now responding to approximately 50% of the calls.
While we know that there is still room for improvement—and we will improve—this represents some progress, which has been met with increased client satisfaction, as indicated by our caller surveys. As we develop increasingly sophisticated methods to provide better services, Canadians can count on the CRA to deliver its programs in a fair and trusted manner.
Last year, the Auditor General reported on the agency's appeals process and noted areas for improvement. We created an action plan to address these issues.
I came before this committee to discuss that plan. I'm pleased to report that we are following through on these commitments and have made progress. Rest assured, Mr. Chair, that CRA will implement the action plan on call centres with the same commitment and determination.
I welcome any questions the committee may have about our responses to the Auditor General’s recommendations or about our action plan. Thank you.
On your comments, most of the calls in our offices—I'd say almost 50%—are with respect to people having a hard time reaching CRA. When this report came out, unfortunately, I don't think any of the MPs were surprised by the challenges of reaching CRA. What has come to light, though, is why that was the case and where we are now.
The one major challenge I have is with the idea that responding to or answering only 30% of the calls is an acceptable practice. When did that happen? I practised tax law. We could actually get through to a desk at a CRA office. We could go see somebody there and actually talk to somebody there. We could actually make phone calls and get quick responses. That was almost 15 to 20 years ago, and now it's as if there's a wall. There's a wall like, “You can't talk to us.” I'm asking when that culture started to happen. It's extremely concerning now. Having an acceptable level of 30% is basically the norm for us.
To respond to that, I'll just back up a little bit, because I think it's important to understand how this transpires. We would like more people to get through. I don't deny that.
However, we have a technology that doesn't allow us to do a number of things, including giving people predicted wait times. We have adopted a service standard that says that if you get through our lines, we will connect you with an agent within two minutes, 80% of the time. When we have excess demand in the system, in order to meet that commitment, we then have to give some people busy signals. That is a trade-off we make when we're designing the system. Other countries may take a different approach and say that you'll just sit on the line as long as it takes, and if it takes half an hour, so be it.
A decision was made in the early 2000s that we would adopt this service standard. In order to fulfill that, we need to control how many people get in, and that results in busy signals. It's not that it's an acceptable practice to deny those people. That is just the way we run the system. And we do look forward to the new technology coming in that will allow us some more flexibility to operate a call centre more as our colleagues do.
Mr. Hamilton, you started going into the accuracy side. Just to preface this, no matter how bad audit results are, there is always going to be somewhat of an awkward feeling when this is done publicly and not privately, but this is brutal. This report is atrocious.
I can tell you that in any of my jobs, with any of my staff, if 84% of the time there was an incorrect response—let's just pretend that the 84% included “I don't know,” even though it's the other way around—we wouldn't be around for long. I can tell you that the people of Barrie—Springwater—Oro-Medonte would make sure I'm not around in two years if 84% of the time, on any single question, we couldn't get it right.
I know that's the outlier, the extremity of the audit results, but none of them, quite frankly, instill confidence in what CRA does. Based on these audit results, I'm wondering what your results are today on this question. Do you take the questions that are asked by the Auditor General and then try to measure, going forward, based on the exact same question, so that you can have an apples-to-apples measuring process?
Mr. Chair, just to respond to that, obviously, we look at the accuracy of results, and we know that we need to do a better job of training our agents to respond to the questions, and a better job of making sure that we are getting the questions to the people who have the right skill set to respond.
I would say that, in the first instance, one of the most important things will be the new technology that we will be adopting next year, which will allow us a more sophisticated way to monitor what's happening on the calls. Right now, we do side-by-side listening. This is in the Auditor General's report. We have various ways within this technology to try to check on the calls, but they're not perfect. The Auditor General referenced that when we're sitting side by side with someone, that could influence how they react on the call.
In the new system, we will have an ability to record and monitor more independently. I think that's going to give us a better sense of where there may be problem areas and where we need to correct them, but we're not waiting for the technology. We're taking some action now. We have looked at our training system. We have tried to improve.
We give all of our agents six weeks of training before they start. They all get refresher courses each year to reflect any new changes that have happened. We're looking at that, trying to make sure that we're giving them the best tools and the best training that we can at the moment, giving them reference tools that are easier for them to access—
“When will my interest start being charged?” is a very simple question that every single CRA agent needs to be able to answer. The fact that about one in 10, or two in 10 basically just gave the wrong answer.... Within the 80% who didn't give the wrong answer, 20% may have said, “I don't know.”
These are very simple questions. I don't understand how we get here. I also don't understand how it is that we wait for these types of situations to occur, these audits to come in, before the technology transition comes into place. Why does it take the most negative results from your department in order for us to start looking at these types of changes? Whether it's on the training side, the measurement side, or the actual process side, I don't understand why it takes so long and why it takes such drastic circumstances to get here. You said you have been in for only a year, so maybe this isn't just your position, but you represent the department on everything to do with this audit at this point.
There has to be a change going forward to ensure that the department is going to be proactive in ensuring that the measurement of these results is accurate, and that it is completing and working on the same work that the Auditor General has done, so that when we come back in a year, we can take a snapshot and say, “That 84% is now 24%,” which is still high, but it's going in the right direction. Will you be able to do that for us in a year from now?
I have to tell you, that sounds more like a sales job than an answer. This is not going well. I don't know who told you this was the approach to take, but with an audit like this, the first thing you ought to be doing, sir, is acknowledging the abysmal results of the department you're responsible for.
I want to go back to the Auditor General's opening comments when he presented the overall report. This is one of the chapters. The Auditor General said just last week that he was hoping to talk about something other than results for citizens. He said he keeps delivering the same message that the government does not understand its results from the citizens' perspective.
Then we go to page 16 of the Auditor General's report, the middle of paragraph 2.78, which states, “If the Agency had reported on access to its call centre...from a taxpayer’s perspective....” I want to hear what part of “taxpayer's perspective” you're not getting. All you're doing is telling me all the measurements you're doing within and how everything is going to be fine, and the starting point is the Auditor General saying that this government overall is not getting the message that services start with the citizen. This report clearly says that your department, your agency, didn't do that.
Talk to me about the Auditor General's comments that the government is failing in this regard and the fact that he used those actual words, “from a taxpayer's perspective”, in this terrible audit of your agency.
Mr. Chair, certainly we believe that we have to look at things from the citizen's perspective. Let me use two examples.
Last year, I talked about our appeals function, and one of the criticisms was that we weren't reporting on the time it took, from the citizen's perspective. We were counting it from the appeals branch's perspective. We took that criticism, we changed, and we now report on the time from when something comes in until it goes out. We will be changing in this regard, and we will be looking to be very transparent in reporting on all aspects.
Not only will we try to get the people who come through the queue answered in a reasonable time, whether it's two minutes or five minutes, but we will also be transparent about the number of busy signals and unanswered calls. Indeed, in the departmental results report this year, we did report on that more transparently, so we are improving and we will continue to improve and we will be taking the approach that our actions and our reporting are being viewed by the client and the customer, from the taxpayer's perspective.
On that departmental report, the fact that you had what amounts to misleading information to citizens is a huge problem. I'm going to come back to that in a second.
I want to focus for a moment on this national quality and accuracy learning program. The Auditor General said on page 8, paragraph 2.39:
||Our test results found that agents gave wrong information to callers almost 30 percent of the time. We also found that other assessors had encountered similar error rates over the past five years.
When we go over to the chart that's provided, exhibit 2.4 on page 9, it shows that your agency, and this national quality and accuracy learning program were admitting to a 6% error rate and the Auditor General is saying it's closer to 30%.
In your action plan, I didn't see a major overhaul of this testing agency. There is lots of analysis here, but what gives? What's with this agency that's supposed to provide accurate information and nobody can rely on the work they're doing? What are you going to do about that? I didn't see anything about an overhaul of that agency. This really troubled me when I saw that you had these quality assurance folks go in there and they came back and gave Canadians this assurance, and it was wrong. It took the Auditor General to come back and say the information's not correct. That is not the service they're providing. It's actually this. So what's up with that?
Let me respond to part of that, and I'll ask my colleague to respond in more detail about the training.
On the quality assurance, I think you will see in our action plan, or what we intended to have in the action plan, were two main thrusts of what we're going to change. First, we're going to overhaul our training, and we're going to provide better training and better tools for our agents. We are starting some of that now, but we will be able to do a better job of that with the new technology. We're going to improve training, give the agents better tools, and with the new technology we will be able to direct questions more appropriately to people with the right skill sets. So that's one area we are going to do.
Second is that with the new technology—and we will have to wait for that—we will be able to do a better job of monitoring the calls and be able to respond with what might be problem areas, to correct them through training and through education of the agents. Those would be the two main thrusts, but I'll ask Frank if he wants to comment on the past experiences.
In that regard, I think, we always do the best we can with the resources we have. We don't have infinite resources, so we always have to make choices about what we do.
I'm telling you now that we are going to be investing in this technology, but I don't want to give you the sense that it's just technology. That will be a big help to us, but we are taking steps before then. We need to look at our systems. We need to look at our training. All of those things will be ongoing pressures.
The other thing I haven't mentioned, which is interesting to note, is that service is a more comprehensive vehicle than just call centres, and we have to think about the information that we provide in general in the service area. How's our website? Can people go there and get the information they want, to the point where they don't need to call as often?
We're looking at all of the aspects of how we provide information to Canadians, but today we're talking about the call centres. Technology will be a big change for us, but we also, as I said, are looking at our training and our systems and making sure that we're giving our people all the tools they need.
Rather than setting a specific new service standard, we're doing two things.
We're trying to increase the transparency of what's going on. I mentioned trying to not only provide a more comprehensive picture of how quickly we're answering when somebody gets through but also provide a picture of how many people are getting through. We're focusing on that transparency. We took the first step in the departmental results report. We hope to improve very soon—as early as next month—our reporting on the website on that. Increased transparency is step one.
We did have an experiment, if you like, to see how changing the wait time, making it a bit longer and letting more people through, would play out in terms of customer satisfaction. So far, it looks as if we're getting some positive results. We'll probably continue to have a little bit of flexibility on the wait time as we go forward.
In terms of a new service standard, once we get the new technology and are able to tell people upfront what their wait times will be, we'll be operating the business in a slightly different way. I think that may give rise to a different kind of service standard. We'll see what that looks like.
At the moment, my focus is more on making sure we're trying to do the best job we can and on being as transparent as we can about telling Canadians what they can expect and what we're delivering. Then I think at the time of the new technology early next year, we'll be revisiting—
I'm going to stop you there, because I have only so much time, Mr. Hamilton. I heard in your answer that essentially there is no set service standard in the way that you have set it before. You talked about new technology. You talked about transparency. To me, this is transparent enough. There's a report here that tells you very clearly what is going wrong. Frankly, I think the most important thing you can do is set a new service standard and then work towards achieving it. Right now the service standard applies only to the calls that get through, and there are many calls that do not even get to an agent. The Auditor General points out very clearly that only one-third of calls reached an agent, based on the information available.
You talked about new technology. From your departmental action plan, I can see you have technology that will route the calls differently and will allow callers to receive more information about their wait times. But quite frankly, I am a bit confused. You said earlier that you're not surprised by the Auditor General's report and that you don't wait around for the Auditor General to issue a report before you do anything. In your action plan, however, you say you're only developing a “new approach to training and evaluating agents” in the first quarter of this fiscal year, whereas you already had this information, and you know what the lack of service has been during the past five years. It's made very clear in the Auditor General's report. In section 2.39, the Auditor General states, “we also found that other assessors had encountered similar error rates over the past five years”.
So for five years you've had information about callers not getting the right information on average 30% of the time. You say you're not surprised and that you don't wait around for the Auditor General's report, yet you're only now starting to have a “new approach to training”. How does this make any sense?
Mr. Chair, there aren't very many occasions on which there is a very negative audit, the department comes in, and the perception of the department goes down, but this is one of those. I feel like I'm sitting in an episode of Yes, Prime Minister or Yes Minister, for those who know what I'm talking about, and I feel like the overall attitude from CRA is kind of laissez-faire, “I don't care”, “It just is what it is.”
I'll use this analogy to our friends at the CRA. You keep saying “technology”, and it's like driving a car, crashing it, and saying, “Well, we just needed a new car”, and that is not what's needed. The driver needs to be better trained. There needs to be an entirely new culture. Technology can drive efficiencies, it can be a product, it can be a core to a process, it is a sector of our economy—it is not a culture. This is a culture issue.
If it weren't a culture issue, we wouldn't have tables here in this report—and I know these are showing how bad it is—and the best on these four tables is showing a 52% incorrect response. You couldn't even hit 50%. It's mind-boggling that we're now talking about technology. I don't want to hear about technology. We're going to hear enough about technology with Phoenix.
I want to hear what culture change is going to take place within this department, within the entire CRA.
It is no secret that this is a bit of a rat's nest, and I want to understand what's going to change so that my constituents and the constituents of every member of Parliament who sits in this place are not going to be coming to us complaining about all of the issues we get complaints about all of the time. Our job is to ensure you're coming to us. When you've come today to try to show accountability and transparency, and you're saying, “We're going to be transparent, and we're going to get technology, and we're going to institute training changes”, that is not good enough.
I can't believe that we've had access to this report now for two weeks, and it's been publicly produced. I'm not sure how long you've had access to this report, but this is not good enough. I don't even have a question, because I just don't think you can answer any of them. It is that bad. I don't understand where this is going. I'm not even sure what we ask to come back to in a year except to say, “Okay, is your incorrect response rate now at 50% instead of 84% on this one question?”, or “Is it now at 25% instead of 52%?” I'm not even sure where we go, because what's going to happen next year is that you're going to say, “Well, we instituted the technology but it takes about six to 12 months for it to get through the system.” We're going to be three years down the road and we're still going to have these crappy results coming out of CRA, and it needs an entire culture change, not a new piece of technology.
That's all I have.
Thank you very much, Chair.
I'm afraid that I have to continue on the same line as my colleague, but I am more intrigued by how it did change, because, like my colleague Mr. Lefebvre, I worked in banking and tax services over the last 20 to 25 years. It was common practice for me to sit with my client and say, “Well, let's just call CRA and get to the root of this”, reach an agent within a very short time, get some kind of an answer, and be able to move on.
In fact, at the time, being a Quebecker, I had the additional joy of actually calling Revenu Québec, and at the time it was Revenu Québec that had difficulty answering our questions in a timely manner. And yet about 10 years ago, I noticed that it flipped. We had more trouble getting through to CRA. Revenu Québec had improved immensely.
My question for the Auditor General is to please give us a bit of a historical perspective, because I'm sure this is not the first time you've audited the CRA and its quality and response times. Give us a bit of that. Maybe we can get some of the root causes of this culture change. I agree that it must be incredibly frustrating for the employees, who I'm sure take great pride in their work, to even be giving an inaccurate response in a, “Well, let me just get rid of this call” kind of way. What has changed? Has it been the performance—and I'll ask Mr. Hamilton and his team—and what are the performance indicators that are being used for employees? Has that changed over the years, such that employees are now motivated in a different way when they're answering public calls?
I'll go to the Auditor General first, please.
I'd like to pick up where Madam Shanahan was before I go to my main question.
On page 16 at 2.79, the report shows us:
||The Agency's internal analysis found that, on average, in 75 percent of calls that were directed to the automated self-service system, the caller hung up before...listening to the main menu....
|| Furthermore, our analysis showed that 69 percent of callers who reached the system called back repeatedly until they reached an agent.
Again, you sent people to the self-service system, and 75% of the people hung up; yet, you tell us that you've been listening to what Canadians want. There's a major disconnect there in terms of what you think Canadians want and what Canadians actually want.
At some point, you have to get past this artificiality of picking these things out of I don't know where and start asking Canadians. If you were asking Canadians, you would not have a system where 75% of the people don't like what you're doing in terms of how you're providing that information. It just screams that you're not listening.
I want to go to something, though, that really concerned me. I'm going to come back to this business of the national quality and accuracy learning program, and the fact that on page 14, at 2.67....
I want to tell you that one of the biggest sins a minister can commit is to mislead the House. That is a firing offence. I'm looking at 2.67 and it says, “Overall, we found that the Canada Revenue Agency's public reporting overstated its call centres' results.” In fact, in your departmental results report of 2016-2017, you bragged about a success rate of between 87% and 90%, and that's wrong.
My first question is—and I'd like a quick answer to this—in your next report, are you going to acknowledge that you had wrong information in the previous year's report?
That is an important question for me. I think the federal government has many call centres across the country, with a great many public servants working there. That is why I would like to know to what extent Revenue Canada works with other departments, especially with deputy ministers, to see whether they can benefit from the services offered by other call centres. For various reasons, I think we too often work in isolation, within our own department.
For example, when we receive a report like this one from the Auditor General, we react by saying that we need new technology and additional resources in order to meet all the needs. Yet we should really have a better overview and check to see which departments offer call centre services. I am thinking of course of the 1 800 O-Canada line. That is an important call centre. In short, I wonder whether lessons can be gleaned from the other call centres.
Has that been done and, if not, will it be?
In your introduction earlier, you said something that was right on the mark. In fact, I am convinced that the 337 other members of the House of Commons share your opinion.
We have received a lot of calls from Canadians who were outraged by this. These people are not millionaires or people who hire an accountant to fill out their tax return. They are ordinary citizens with a modest income. In most cases, they are seniors. Eight times out of ten, or 84% of the time, these people were not able to talk to an agent or, even worse, got incorrect information.
Did these people pay too much tax or not enough? That is the question, and it is obviously the first one that comes to mind for them.
Did they pay too much tax as a result of the incorrect information they were given?
Mr. Hamilton, what recourse do these people have?
I am not sure I understand your question.
It is important for those people to get the right information.
Your question about taxes and whether they paid too much or not enough is interesting.
In my opinion, providing information that is consistent with the law is important. That is why we will do many things to improve training and ensure that the right person gives those people the right answer, especially in the case of vulnerable people, you are right.
Having a good website with accurate information is important. On the other hand, many people would rather talk to an agent. That is an important issue for us and we will improve.
Mr. Chair, it's an interesting question. I'm pleased to say that the morale in this area is high.
I'll just refer to the example last year on the appeals audit, which, again, was difficult for us because it pointed to a number of shortcomings in our appeals process in terms of timeliness. We weren't giving information in a way that tax payers expected. When I talked to the appeals people afterwards, they were actually somewhat energized. To go back, people there understand some of the problems in the system. When we have a motivated action plan to correct it, they get energized by it.
I did ask the question. I sent out the message, as indicated, to tell people about the report, the importance for us, and the importance of improving. I asked the representatives from the call centres how people are feeling. They said that they actually feel good. They're feeling that this is an opportunity for us to really improve, to make sure that we're giving them the right tools. We have the technology on the horizon, but there will be an importance, a priority, attached to this by virtue of what I'm doing and by virtue of what Frank and Gillian are doing. People are seizing that opportunity.
We have to deliver on that. I know that will be an issue for the committee and the Auditor General. Are we going to commit to improving the way that we've laid out in our action plan? I believe that we will. Our employees will be expecting that and putting our feet to the fire.
For the moment I can say, yes, they're feeling motivated to make improvements to the system.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair. Thank you all for being here.
I'm going to follow up on my colleagues' points, Mr. Christopherson's and Mr. Deltell's, about the fact that taxpayers are citizens. Taxpayers expect a government that provides services to them that are accurate and timely.
When someone calls one of the call centres to ask for tax information and is given an erroneous answer, that will most automatically cause someone, in good faith, to submit an erroneous return. He or she is going to make a return that is mistaken because of the information he or she received. Mr. Deltell asked what recourse they have. Almost automatically the agency actually does the calculations and eventually will give us a proper amount. However, when we owe money to the agency, we're charged interest. When the agency owes money to us, not one red cent is paid in interest. For some people this is a big issue. It's a lot of money. They did it in good faith. They actually produced their returns in good faith.
Why are we continuing to provide bad information to people? If somebody doesn't know the answer, they should tell the citizen that they don't know the answer. Refer them to somebody who can answer them. But giving erroneous information is extremely harmful. I really can't understand how for years—this is not recent, this is not one time, this has been going on for awhile—we can continue to sustain a service that is providing erroneous information to citizens.
Just to close off that accuracy issue, we've had this in the past with these departmental results reports. We may need to go back, every now and then, to just randomly pull one and hold a hearing on it. We found in the past that there were some corrective measures, but the arguments Mr. Nuttall just made.... This is exactly what is unacceptable in terms of talking to Canadians. This looks like it was contrived, I agree. That's why it upset me so much.
One of the reasons we televise this is not just so that Canadians can hear but so that the rest of government can hear. I'm hoping there are departments and deputies who are understanding that monkeying around with these departmental results reports, playing with the numbers to make them look good, is eventually going to come back to haunt you. We will find you.
If I can, Chair, though, I want to return to this. It's just nagging at me. The national quality and accuracy learning program, this whole thing....
My questions are going to go to Mr. Ferguson. For instance, one of the methods they use.... I'm talking about this entity itself. It looks pretty Mickey Mouse to me. It's supposed to be a professional entity that gives a reflection of what's going on. With the certified listener thing, where you actually sit down beside them and monitor it, of course people are going to modify their behaviour if their examiner is sitting right beside them. That's what I'm worried about—the shallowness of the thinking of this.
Another method was to have agents make anonymous calls to other agents and ask non-account-specific.... In these cases, agents often recognized the caller's voice since it was one of their colleagues. In many cases, the telephone system identified that the call was coming from a testing line.
Help me understand what is going on in this Mickey Mouse outfit, Mr. Ferguson. Really, is there any wonder we have a lot of these problems, when these are the training methods?
Mr. Ferguson, maybe you can give me a calmer reflection on this than I have done.
Do you know what? I don't think you need you need a Ph.D. in anything to get that. That's what struck me. The level of common sense seemed to be missing.
I touched on something earlier, and I want to come back to it again. It's about the Office of the Taxpayers' Ombudsman. It's related, to the extent that $2.3 million of taxpayers' money was spent through this department. Again, I want to remind colleagues that this is the report that said, “our role is not to be an advocate for taxpayers,” and then three paragraphs later, “we serve taxpayers”. Give me a break.
In this report, there's $2.3 million a year for this ombudsman, who by the way, is not an agent of Parliament. This is an ombudsman attached to the minister. I'm not even sure they should be allowed to call themselves ombudsmen, in light of that. However:
||Our office has received numerous complaints from taxpayers and representatives in recent years, claiming it is very difficult to connect with the CRA's general enquiries telephone lines.
||A recurring complaint from taxpayers is they reach a busy signal, regardless of the time of the day they call, forcing them to make multiple calls.
||Given the announcement of increased funding for telephone access and initiatives underway by the CRA, our Office is not opening an examination at this time, but we are monitoring this issue.
Thank you very much, and thank you for appearing here today.
Just to finish off, to reiterate what I said earlier about the number of calls coming in, in rural Alberta we have an expression. I don't know if it's even politically appropriate to call it what we call it. When you try to find the light at the end of the tunnel, on the farm they say that you try to make a silk purse out of a pig's ear. That's a bad analogy, and maybe I shouldn't bring it up in Parliament, but it's to make something pretty out of something ugly. That's what I want to do. I thank you for being here.
I will say that with all the constituency work we do, I appreciate the liaison that the CRA has with the offices of members of Parliament. From what my staff tells me, people call our office because they are so frustrated. They're at the end of their rope with CRA. Our staff has the ability to connect with someone in CRA and typically get, I would hope right answers, but answers. Thank you for that.
To bring that level back to the general public, who really all parties want to help and support, we can only do it with your help. It's similar to the people at the border crossings coming back from the States. When they meet a Canadian border crossing agent and that agent is friendly and welcoming, it's appreciated. When people come back into Canada and meet someone who's upset and mad right at the beginning, I hear about it. Our offices hear about it: who do you have representing you at that border?
It's the very same with the CRA. Who do you have representing the CRA on the phone? They are the face of the CRA. It's not Mr. Hamilton; it's not Mr. Vermaeten; it's the person on the phone. That's why many of our constituents get frustrated.
You can expect a callback; I'll pretty well guarantee it without even going to committee business. There will be a callback, and hopefully in the interim we will see some good progress.
Thank you very much.
We're going to ask you all to leave as quickly as possible because we have some committee business. The last 10 minutes will be in camera, in confidence.
[Proceedings continue in camera]