I call this meeting to order.
Welcome to the 34th meeting of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Public Accounts.
Pursuant to Standing Order 108(3)(g) and the motion adopted by the committee on October 4, 2022, the committee is meeting today for its study on Report 1, Access to Benefits for Hard-to-Reach Populations, of the 2022 Reports 1 to 4 of the Auditor General of Canada.
I would now like to welcome our witnesses, who are joining us both here in person and virtually.
From the Office of the Auditor General, we have Ms. Karen Hogan, the Auditor General. It's nice to see you. Nicolas Swales is returning as well. It's nice to see you as well, sir.
I'm not going to try to find all of you on the screen, because there are at least 12 boxes in front of me. I will acknowledge that you're here, and if you're not, the clerk will inform me in a few minutes.
From the Canada Revenue Agency, by video conference, we have Bob Hamilton, commissioner of revenue and chief executive officer; Maxime Guénette, assistant commissioner, service, innovation and integration branch; and Gillian Pranke, assistant commissioner, assessment, benefit, and service branch.
The next department is the Department of Employment and Social Development. We have, by video conference, Lori MacDonald, senior associate deputy minister of Employment and Social Development, and chief operating officer for Service Canada; Tammy Bélanger, senior assistant deputy minister, benefits and integrated services branch; and Atiq Rahman, assistant deputy minister, learning branch.
Finally, from Statistics Canada, we have, by video conference, Josée Bégin, director general, labour market, education and socio-economic well-being; and Andrew Heisz, director, centre for income and socio-economic well-being statistics.
Each department and agency will have five minutes right off the top for its opening statement.
Ms. Hogan, we'll begin with you or one of your officials. You have five minutes. Go ahead, please.
Mr. Chair, thank you for this opportunity to discuss our report on the access to benefits for hard-to-reach populations, which was tabled in the House of Commons on May 31, 2022. I would like to acknowledge that this hearing is taking place on the traditional unceded territory of the Algonquin Anishinaabe people.
Joining me today is Nicholas Swales, the principal who was responsible for the audit.
The Government of Canada delivers several income support benefits to low-income Canadians to help lift them out of poverty and reduce inequality. These programs can achieve their goals only if those who are eligible to receive benefits are aware of them and can access them.
The Canada Revenue Agency and Employment and Social Development Canada know that some individuals are not accessing the benefits available to them. These individuals include low-income members of groups who are not easily served through regular channels, such as Indigenous people, seniors, newcomers to Canada, and people with disabilities. These hard-to-reach populations require more help from the government.
For this audit, we wanted to know whether the Canada Revenue Agency and Employment and Social Development Canada ensured that hard-to-reach populations were made aware of, and could access, the Canada child benefit, the Canada workers benefit, the guaranteed income supplement, and the Canada learning bond.
We found that the government lacked a clear and complete picture of the people who were not accessing benefits. The government estimated that overall, a high proportion of low-income people were receiving the benefits. However, the agency and department overstated the rates of people accessing benefits because they did not always account for people who had not filed income tax returns. Filing a tax return is required to access most benefits.
Since 2018, the agency and the department have increased their efforts to raise awareness of benefits among people who most need them. Outreach activities have focused on hard-to-reach populations, who are more likely to have modest incomes and often face barriers to accessing benefits. These populations include people who may be unaware of available benefits or reluctant to interact with government organizations.
We found that, despite these efforts, the department and the agency had not developed measures to assess the impacts of outreach activities. For example, they could not measure increases in the rate of benefit take-up for targeted groups over time, or related impacts, such as increased tax filing by those groups over time.
Finally, we found that service approaches for helping people who required more personalized support were not sufficiently integrated between the agency and the department. The agency and the department had initiated some pilot projects to work with community groups on more individualized support, but they had not established an integrated service delivery approach.
Better collection and use of disaggregated data would improve their ability to understand and identify barriers and target outreach. Statistics Canada is an important partner in data collection, measurement and analysis. Although the agency and the department have taken some action, they still have not done enough to connect people with benefits. As a result, they are failing to improve the lives of some individuals and families who may need these benefits the most.
We made three recommendations as a result of this audit. The Canada Revenue Agency, Employment and Social Development Canada and Statistics Canada agreed with these recommendations.
Mr. Chair, this concludes my opening remarks. We would be pleased to answer any questions the committee may have.
Thank you for this opportunity to discuss the Canada Revenue Agency’s response to the Auditor General of Canada’s Report 1— Access to Benefits for Hard-to-Reach Populations.
Today, I am accompanied by two agency assistant commissioners, namely Gillian Pranke and Maxime Guénette.
First, I want to recognize the excellent work of agency employees during the COVID‑19 pandemic who have been supporting Canadians in accessing benefits and credits to which they are entitled.
They have gone to great lengths to do so, and despite the impacts of the pandemic over the past three filing seasons, our employees have been able to provide billions of dollars in urgent support to help millions of Canadians.
When it comes to hard-to-reach populations, the agency has taken many steps to continue to reach the most vulnerable. In fact, when many tax clinics that are part of the community volunteer income tax program—the CVITP—were set to close in March 2020, the CRA quickly pivoted to alter processes so as to keep these clinics up and running, many in a virtual format. These approaches remain in place and provide much greater flexibility and access to those in need.
Over the 2017 to 2020 period, there has been a roughly 7% increase in individuals who have accessed the CRA’s CVITP. The number of tax returns filed has increased by over 11%, and the number of individuals who were assisted during outreach sessions has increased by over 15%. The CRA is making it easier for individuals, especially those from at-risk populations, to access important benefits and credits by enhancing the funding available to CVITP clinics.
recently announced a new formula for the CVITP grant that will increase the amount of money awarded to organizations through the grant each year, helping them to cover the cost of hosting free tax clinics. It also recognizes the unique challenges of organizations that serve northern and indigenous communities. Thus, we are proud to have been able to implement this important part of the Minister of National Revenue’s mandate letters for the past five years.
With respect to the specific recommendations in report 1, the CRA has noted that it agrees with all three recommendations from the Auditor General. Although we are proud of our achievements in this area, we also recognize that there is more work to be done. Indeed, the CRA has provided a detailed action plan to the committee already, outlining how we will work towards meeting all of the recommendations and the timelines for those initiatives.
This will include, among other things, continuing to work with ESDC to ensure alignment in the prioritization, planning, and monitoring of work related to the take-up of benefits by hard-to-reach populations, and, as well, continuing to leverage Statistics Canada’s expertise, including the most recent Census data, to gain more insight into hard-to-reach populations.
In closing, CRA is committed to improving its client service to Canada, including our country's most vulnerable, through its “people first” service philosophy.
Thank you, Mr. Chair. I am now happy to answer any questions you have.
Thank you, Mr. Chair, for the invitation to appear before the committee today and the opportunity to discuss the Auditor General’s report on benefits for hard-to-reach Canadian populations.
I am joined today by assistant deputy ministers Tammy Bélanger and Atiq Rahman, and by the director general of social policy and strategic service policy, Hugues Vaillancourt.
First, let me say that the Government of Canada welcomes the Auditor General's report and we fully accept her recommendations.
We are always looking for ways to improve services to Canadians and better support hard-to-reach people across the country.
Many vulnerable Canadians face barriers in accessing government services or benefits, for a variety of reasons. For example, certain people do not appear in administrative databases. They do not, and are not required to, file taxes. In cases like these, it becomes difficult—even impossible—to remind them to apply for a benefit by mail or phone, because we can't find them and don't know where they are, and they may not know how to access us.
The audit’s main finding was that the government did not have a clear and complete picture of the people who were not receiving benefits to which they may be entitled. Our department has been working to overcome this challenge for some time.
We strive to reach all Canadians, no matter where they live or in what circumstances. But I agree that we need to do more.
That is why, in 2020, Service Canada introduced the reaching all Canadians initiative, which is specifically designed to increase benefit uptake and eliminate barriers to access and delivery. Through this initiative, we have been connecting directly with communities and organizations that can refer clients to us or help us identify new clients who wouldn’t otherwise be known to us.
For example, working with the Rainbow Resource Centre in Winnipeg, we help members of the 2SLGBTQI+ community regarding benefit entitlements associated with common-law partnerships. We also work directly with their trans ID clinic coordinator to help those with questions about changing gender designations on government identification, social insurance numbers, passports and employment insurance. Those are just examples of where we're reaching out to hard-to-reach populations to make those connections.
We also work with service delivery providers, such as Islington Seniors' Shelter in Ontario, to reach seniors living in homelessness or poverty. Partnerships like these deliver help to clients who may face accessibility, literacy or technological barriers, and ensure they are obtaining their GIS, CPP, OAS and potentially other benefits to which they may be entitled.
We have also resumed regular community and outreach liaison services to residents of rural, remote, northern and indigenous communities. Last year, almost 100,000 clients were served directly through this work, and almost 80,000 this year, as of September 30. We meet directly with individuals within these communities to help them with their unique needs.
Of course, the COVID‑19 pandemic did have an impact on our ability to reach some communities and individuals.
In April 2020, we launched the Outreach Support Centre to provide immediate, direct and personalized toll-free phone service to Indigenous communities and clients facing the same barriers identified within the Auditor General's report.
This expansion of service now helps tens of thousands of Canadians every year. Last year, the support centre received over 27,000 calls and provided nearly 32,000 services to hard-to-reach Canadians.
We also reach as many Canadians as we can through the mail and by phone. Over the last five years, Service Canada and the CRA mailed over 425,000 GIS applications and received over a quarter of a million completed applications. By phone, we contact seniors directly to help ensure that they can renew their GIS benefits. For example, last year, we called 100,000 seniors, which helped result in 43,000 renewed GIS benefits.
We will also continue to work closely with our colleagues at Canada Revenue Agency to share information, identify best practices and collaborate on data collection, where needed and where appropriate.
Our work includes ensuring that as many people as possible automatically receive benefits when entitled. For example, all individuals eligible for OAS are automatically put into pay in the month after they turn 65. Since 2014, 1.4 million Canadians were auto-enrolled in OAS.
Ensuring reliable and accessible services to all Canadians, regardless of where they live, remains a top priority for my department. This is how we will achieve improved outcomes for Canadians from all walks of life.
Thank you for asking us to be here today.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
I'm pleased to be here on behalf of Statistics Canada to discuss the government's action in assessing and measuring access to benefits for hard-to-reach populations.
Statistics Canada is participating with the Canada Revenue Agency and Employment and Social Development Canada on a joint action plan, with specific activities and deliverables geared towards improving understanding of benefit take-up. Since the summer of 2022, we have been working together to identify governance for the joint program and discuss strategies to develop performance measures.
Regarding benefit uptake and performance measures, in our response to the OAG recommendation we highlighted the substantial statistical difficulties with calculating accurate benefit take-up rates. The statistical system relies on data from programs that are taken up by the population. Thus, inherently, when someone does not use these programs, or is ineligible or not aware of them, it creates a challenge. This relates to the importance of developing new strategies to assess benefit take-up, as indicated in the action plan.
We do, however, have data sources and methods to estimate the population that is missed or not in scope and provide their characteristics, such that policy-makers can target efforts to better include them. Through data integration of administrative data with other data holdings of StatCan, we can describe the numbers of recipients belonging to particular age, sex, racialized, indigenous identity, or another population or at-risk group.
Statistics Canada is also well placed to provide information on groups that are more or less at risk of not receiving benefits to which they may be entitled for reasons of not filing their taxes. Through tabulation of linked datasets, Statistics Canada can determine population groups that are less likely to be tax filers. While these measures only approximate the benefit take-up rate, this information can be used to target our outreach to particular communities.
It is important to underscore that Statistics Canada's actions cannot include the sharing of confidential microdata. This means that we cannot identify individuals, but rather can provide information about the characteristics of those who are at risk of not receiving benefits. However, CRA and ESDC can access anonymized microdata through a Statistics Canada research data centre hub or through other secure means.
StatCan has a number of other initiatives that are designed to better understand this important group, with the necessary safeguards that protect privacy and confidentiality, and is continuing to explore new, innovative ways to shed important light on this element of our population.
For example, an existing partnership that will be leveraged to respond to the recommendation is the tax research advisory group, co-led by Statistics Canada and CRA. This group serves as a collaborative partnership between CRA and StatCan to share knowledge and expertise relating to methodology, tax data, tax administration and tax process understanding. The tax data research group is already discussing new research that is relevant to the OAG recommendations on using behavioural economic analysis to investigate the value of “nudges” to encourage people to file taxes, and an analysis of benefit receipt among marginalized groups, notably new immigrants, including refugee claimants.
In another initiative, ESDC and Statistics Canada are working toward the establishment of a joint data strategy that will build on existing collaboration and data-sharing agreements to create a more strategic partnership that goes beyond data. The joint data strategy proposes to prioritize action on data access and data acquisition for statistical purposes and the development of data standards.
In summary, Statistics Canada is well prepared to carry out the action plan with the Canada Revenue Agency and Employment and Social Development Canada to improve the measurement of benefit take-up. Once the details of a plan have been agreed upon, Statistics Canada will present funding requirements to federal partners to allow for the work to proceed, if necessary.
I thank you again for having Statistics Canada to speak here today, and I look forward to your questions.
AG Hogan, Mr. Swales, welcome back again, and welcome, other witnesses.
I want to start with you, Ms. Hogan.
We're talking about vulnerable populations. Who is defining vulnerable populations, or what do we have to define what is “vulnerable”, so they're not just lumped into one group? Not all in northern hard-to-reach areas are actually vulnerable.
I'm curious how we're defining that, so we can target, so to speak, the right people we need to be directing resources to.
I can address it, Mr. McCauley.
Mr. Fragiskatos, I give latitude to members to use their time as they see fit. Should a member want to come back to a question that they feel another member has not permitted a witness to give time to, they're free to do that. Time is limited here. In particular, some members have only two and a half minutes. I think members do have the ability and the right to end the question if they think it's going down a path that they do not think is helpful.
Having said that, I take your point that we do want to show courtesy to our witnesses, and if questions are asked, witnesses should be given the chance to provide at least a brief retort.
I'm going to turn it back over to you, Mr. McCauley. Don't argue with me, because the time is now running and you're eating into your time.
Thank you to all the witnesses for being here today.
Commissioner Hamilton, I want to begin with you. You spoke about community volunteer income tax programs, or CVITPs, as a key example of the challenge of how hard-to-reach populations are accessed, if I can put it that way. Could you expand on that?
Could you also give more information to the committee about something else you talked about, that being the recent enhancements to the program as announced by our , pertaining to populations in the north and indigenous individuals as well?
I would start by saying that the community volunteer income tax program is a very important one that we've worked on quite aggressively over the last number of years. At the core of it, it's really an effort by us to try to reach some of these people whom we might not normally be able to reach. How do you do that? How do you encourage them to file a tax return so that they can get the benefits they're eligible for? The laws of the land say that you can't get them unless you file.
This is our effort to get into the community, build the trust we can with some of the community members, and have some volunteers help people file their tax returns and get the benefits they need. It's something we've had for a while now. We've been trying to improve it over time. As I noted, during the pandemic we had to pivot a little bit to go more to a virtual format, because these were predominantly in person, and we couldn't do that at the beginning of the pandemic. We did pivot, and we have great support from the communities that we're engaged with.
What we did recently, and that was in the announcement, was provide some grants to these community associations to help defray some of the costs they have to incur when they're providing the support. It could be something like paper, computers, that sort of thing. As they're trying to help the members of their community in these hard-to-reach areas, we have a program that allows us to compensate them for some of those expenses.
announced recently some changes to that to make it more effective, provide greater assistance, and target better some communities across the land, including indigenous communities. It's a way for us to get into the communities and try to help the people within those communities, with the support of others.
I've seen the work of the CVITPs up close in a number of different parts of the country. I can tell you specifically about my home riding in London, where we have a number of CVITPs that have helped individuals gain access to things like the Canada child benefit. As you know, for families finally getting access to it, if they haven't filed for it for a number of years especially, it's transformational for them, and obviously for the kids.
Would you say, Commissioner, that the trust relationship—this is something I've noticed about CVITPs—is fundamental? These are usually locally based organizations that do a number of other things. They're not-for-profits or charities. They're known in their communities. There's a relationship of trust that exists toward citizens and vice versa. Would you say that is fundamental to CVITPs, and how potentially they can be a key actor in confronting this challenge of hard-to-reach populations?
Again, it is a very active program for us to try to raise awareness of the tax system and the benefits that one can get through the tax system.
We have a three-pillar approach. We are looking at improving financial and tax literacy through educational efforts that we provide. We are raising that awareness I spoke about, so that people recognize that filing their taxes is an important key to enabling some of the benefits to come through. We're supporting the filing and helping people who might be challenged in filing their tax return. We can provide that support.
We just talked about the CVITP, but a lot of what we're doing is making it easier for people to access the tax system. That can be through things such as videos that we prepare. Sometimes they're in different languages to help newcomers. You mentioned newcomers coming to the country. How can they get a familiarity with the tax system? We have educational materials and, in some cases, we're able to translate them into languages that are easier for them to access.
Those are some of the things we're doing in that area to try to increase awareness and help people by making it simpler for them to file their taxes and understand the tax system.
Thank you for your question, Ms. Sinclair-Desgagné.
We've been looking at the traditional ways we've been trying to reach people to deliver benefits, and then deconstructing them to make a determination of how we find those people who aren't accessing our benefits because they're not using our traditional methods. They're not calling us; they're not coming into Service Canada centres; they're not in any databases and they're not filing taxes.
What we're looking at, and what we've been doing for the past few years, is using third party resources, such as NGOs or advocacy and help groups that are on the ground and accessing these people. We've been using them, for example, as an intermediary to connect with us, so that we can connect them with services.
We're also using outreach services across the country—not just in rural and northern areas, but also in urban centres—because this is an issue regardless of geography or where people are living.
Commissioner Hamilton is absolutely correct in that it's very challenging to identify, with any degree of certainty, how many individuals are not filing, but I'd just like to highlight two things that we've been doing.
For over five years now, for a number of years, we've been working with Statistics Canada to conduct what we call linkage studies, where we actually can discreetly link up citizens who complete the census with tax data. It's anonymized, of course. That gives us an idea as far as individuals who aren't availing themselves of benefits and credits are concerned.
For the past five years, in the Canada Revenue Agency we've been conducting what we call a non-filer benefit outreach program, where we are in touch with individuals who, according to our records, our holdings, didn't file a return, but who, according to our data, would be entitled to a benefit or a credit. They would not be in a situation where they'd owe taxes, but they're entitled to benefits.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
I want to thank the Auditor General and her office for being present today. I want to thank the witnesses, as well, who have been able to enlighten us on some of the realities facing hard-to-reach populations.
I understand how difficult this work is in light of the lack of data, and I want to focus there.
I want to make a positive mention about the efforts that have been undertaken, particularly on reserves. I had an opportunity to speak with some of the communities about some of the supports they received, allowing for intake. I think that's a good portion of this.
However, I think the gaps that are present in that framework are obvious to many folks, particularly in urban settings. When I talk about urban settings, it seems strange to think about people being unable to access services. However, we're seeing the growing number of folks struggling in urban centres. On top of that, places like Service Canada, in my city of Edmonton, haven't been open in almost two years. It's a concern for populations.
There are 3,400 houseless folks in my community. In Edmonton Griesbach, it's 3,400. In the last two years, 462 have died. When I think about hard-to-reach populations, I think about these people in my community who are unable to access these services. When I think about the work that is being undertaken, particularly in relation to recommendation 1.59 by the Auditor General's office, “To improve the integration and effectiveness of targeted outreach,” I think about those populations, my relatives in Edmonton Griesbach who are living in this reality right now.
I see that there was work related to several departments, including Employment and Social Development Canada and Indigenous Services Canada, that looked at uptake for rural and reserve settings. Was there any comparable work that's taken place to ensure that indigenous urban populations—which make up the majority of indigenous people in Canada today—had a comparable level of service, or an application to help overcome these barriers? Was there any working group in urban settings for indigenous folks?
I will ask that of the assistant deputy minister from ESDC.
It's a mix, certainly, and we do try to tailor our services so that people can use the channel of their choice. Predominantly, over 90% of tax returns are filed electronically, based on last year. I forget the exact number, but let's say it's 92%—something like that.
If you're looking at individuals, a large portion of them, over 50%, go to tax preparers. Others use software that's available on the market, and then the balance.... We have a service called “File my Return”, which is particularly helpful for this group. You can use it to file by phone, and we're expanding that. A million or so people use paper forms, and we mail the forms out to them to make it easier. That's how people file their tax returns.
I think one of the focal points, and my final point, is that we're trying to make that process as easy as possible for people. From a system perspective, it's obviously better for us if it's filed electronically, but we're trying to make sure that we're accommodating how people want to file their returns.
Thank you to our witnesses today.
The overwhelming and recurring theme here is “we don't know what we don't know”. That's the whole problem. We have these invisible people we could potentially help, but they're under the radar.
I know that, when they collapsed the long-form census—I was working in a municipality at the time this happened—it was a struggle for municipalities to help identify some of the service needs, because we just didn't have the data.
Ms. MacDonald, could you tell me whether it was impactful on your department when we dropped the collection of more extensive data through the long-form census? Did that limit the kind of information you had access to?
It's an honour for me to be joining the public accounts committee. I grew up during the period of the sponsorship scandal, so the Auditor General was, in my mind, always a celebrity. I know I'm among great people here.
I dug into this audit. It's my first one at this committee. I was very struck by what was in it. It's a study into the ability of the government to get benefits to people who may not be aware of those benefits or may struggle to apply for them, and so forth. The conclusion that I got from it was that we don't really know. We can't really measure. The government has spent a bunch of money in this area, but we can't really figure out if it's working.
It seemed pretty disappointing and borderline scandalous that we recognize that there's this problem, but the government's efforts to address it are not being measured. We have no sense of whether we're progressing towards that objective.
Ms. Hogan, am I correct in my summary of this? Am I missing something? Those were my take-aways from the information you provided us about the lack of measurable results from the government in terms of this money they're spending on trying to do outreach here.
The very purpose of government benefits should be to reach those who are on the edge, those who are most vulnerable and those who are on the margins. It's a particular problem if we're saying that those who are perhaps in greatest need of government benefits and supports may not be accessing them very much because of that marginalization.
Another thing that struck me about this whole discussion was that the focus from the government seems to be that we need to spend more money going out and talking to people about these benefits, but not the discussion that maybe we need to simplify the structure of these benefits, make more benefits automatic or look at things like automatic tax filing, which exists in other countries.
I'll direct my next questions to the folks at the CRA.
What concrete steps are you taking to try to improve the simplicity of benefits that are available or make this automatic? It seems to me that the trend of government policy is to make things more complex, to say we're going to have an additional benefit for this and an additional benefit for that, rather than talking about large, simpler benefits that are targeted to vulnerable people and that they have more flexibility around.
Thank you very much, Chair.
I thank the witnesses for being here with us today in person and on screen. This is a topic that is very close to my heart. I remember being part of advocacy groups back in the early 2000s around the whole issue of old age security and finding out that thousands of people, if not tens of thousands, were not getting their OAS because they weren't aware of how to apply for it, and so on. I'm very glad to see that there has been auto-enrolment since 2014.
In my work, too, as a social worker in financial autonomy, I'm finding out that behavioural economics—a term that we've heard here today—and let's just say a reluctance to engage with the tax system is very much a reality. This is why I'm very heartened to hear that the community groups are playing a large part in working with the CRA and ESDC in reaching out to folks.
I have a question now for both of the witnesses from those agencies. Do the department and the agency have estimates of the take-up rates for benefits such as the guaranteed income supplement, the Canada child benefit, the Canada workers benefit and the Canada learning bond in various vulnerable populations, such as indigenous people and people with disabilities? Can you provide those estimates to the committee in writing?
I'm asking Commissioner Hamilton and/or Ms. MacDonald.
I just want to follow up on, and perhaps add to, Mrs. Shanahan's request.
I may have missed it, but is the CRA able to provide us with the percentage of those we term as “vulnerable” who are completing their tax returns? Also, can you provide to the committee a breakdown of the numbers, whether we consider as “vulnerable” refugees, first nation or indigenous...? Can you break it down like that?
To the CRA, we were talking about this having been kind of a work in progress for six years. I'm looking at your departmental plan for this year, and it doesn't actually mention this issue of the vulnerable. It talks about the Canada workers benefit and to “ensure Canadians who qualify....” It's not in your departmental plan, but apparently it's been on the radar for six years. Is that just an oversight, or is there just not enough space in your departmental plan to note this?
Madame Bégin, in your opening statement, you said, “Through data integration of administrative data with other data holdings of StatCan, we can describe the numbers of recipients belonging to particular age, sex, racialized, indigenous identity, or another population or at-risk group.”
In my riding of Scarborough—Agincourt, and I'm sure in many ridings around the country, there are large immigrant populations whose first language is neither English nor French. I know that this population is definitely hard to reach because of the language barriers and other factors that make it more difficult for them to engage in things like filing taxes or filling out census forms. Not all of these people are newcomers.
Do you have a special way to identify people in this particular at-risk group?
Thank you, Mr. Chair, for the question.
Depending on the objective of the study or the research we do, one source for us would be to look at the census data, which collects lots of information around language spoken at home. Again, depending on the objective, and the integration of data, we maybe could derive at-risk populations. That's one example.
I do want to say that we collect a large number of surveys. We also have access to administrative data, whether it's from ESDC, CRA or the provinces and the territories. On a regular basis, we do integration of data because the power of data is there when you combine it. We do that respecting confidentiality and the privacy of the information. We also do that through a secure environment, and we use different statistical methods to combine the information.
My series of questions is for you, Madam Auditor General.
In your report, you state that you found that, overall, the Canada Revenue Agency and Employment and Social Development Canada have not done enough to help hard-to-reach populations. In addition, you say you found that no tangible progress has yet been made in collecting, measuring or analyzing data on benefit take-up.
Also, we know that Canada has set a goal to cut poverty in half by 2030. Do you feel that the government is doing enough in its efforts to reduce poverty?
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
I want to finish up that last portion, related to the barriers at financial institutions, to get the Auditor General's comments on record.
We've heard, of course, from some of the folks at CRA and ESDC. Thank you for that contribution. I think it was a really clear answer for me to know that you must do that work within a financial institution before you access the Canada learning bond, which is evidence as to why there's a significant barrier.
It leads me to think of the people who can't access financial institutions. We saw in Vancouver, just two years ago, a high-profile case in the news of discrimination at financial institutions, bodies outside our regulation. There was a 12-year-old girl with her indigenous grandfather, and she was going to open a bank account for the first time. She is still traumatized today. What happened is that the bank called the cops, and these two people were removed from the financial institution, and that young, 12-year-old girl was arrested for no purpose. That is a reality in Canada today at our financial institutions. When I talk about the need to understand barriers, that's a real thing happening in Canada. They are a real family we know of in Vancouver, and it's a real issue.
When we're looking at these barriers, in particular to the Canada learning bond, is it appropriate to be utilizing oftentimes private sector corporations to do the vetting for us?
I think we've talked about some of the challenges there in terms of privacy and confidentiality, where we can target a specific initiative to a particular individual. However, it goes too far, I think, to say that we don't have any sense of the success we're having with these outreach activities.
I will go back to a point that we talked about earlier—trust, which can sometimes take a bit of time to build. As we do outreach into the communities, whether that's through the community volunteer program or our own officers, we can see the tangible benefits of what we're providing to the people.
Can we document that it actually means somebody filed their return and got their benefit? We know that in some cases it does, but we don't have the good aggregate statistics. That's something we're trying to work on. However, it does bump up against privacy concerns, and I think that's just a challenge we are going to have.
I think it goes too far to say that we don't have any idea that these aren't doing good. My prescription would not be to stop doing them because we can't measure them accurately, but to try to find ways to better measure them within the constraints we have.
I will just build on Bob's response. All of the issues he identified that we struggle with in terms of barriers we have in terms of tracking are true. At the same time, one thing that the Auditor General identified, and that we all agree with, is that we need to work more collectively in terms of tracking the same information, and sharing that information and measuring it the same way. One of the obstacles we have is that we measure and track differently.
Our focus has been on the actual outreach portion of it, to get out there and find those people and figure out how we get in touch with them in non-traditional ways. That has been our focus. This conversation and the audit help us in terms of what that means with respect to actual outcomes.
I agree with Bob. We do have outcomes. We have some very good examples of where we see the impact, whether that's providing virtual services and virtual clinics online or an increase in uptake in the child care benefit. The fact that it can't be exactly attributed to that outreach initiative is something we need to work on. However, overall, we're seeing positive results in terms of reaching those hard-to-reach populations, and we will continue to evolve our methodologies over the course of the coming months.
One of the things we've struggled with, as I said previously, is that because they're an unknown population, they don't respond to what we traditionally do as government, whether that's mail-outs, phone calls out, a stagnant Service Canada centre or government department. We have to rethink how we connect with them.
The example I would give you is from during the pandemic. When they were trying to give people vaccinations, one of the things they discovered, particularly in urban centres, was that a number of people were shut-in. A number of people over the age of 65 were not coming out and were not in care. We went to third party organizations and people working directly with seniors to get them to access those people who were shut-in. As a result, we were able to put people on GIS and OAS and back-pay them with money.
That lesson learned is that we can't do things in very traditional government ways. We need to access the services that are already on the ground doing a lot of this work and that know those people.
We obviously have other lessons learned, as well, in terms of building relationships with communities, such as not going into a community and dropping off papers. We have to build those relationships, and then connect with the individuals in those communities and support groups so that we can go back. We did that with CRA. We helped people fill out their short-form tax forms, so that we could get people on child care benefits. Another lesson learned is to help them fill out the forms. It's not enough.... They're complicated forms, so we help them fill out the forms.
Finally, I would say that we had to change the literacy on our websites. We were putting our pages at a university one level. We've reduced it now, so that on average, as it is benchmarked in a number of other countries, it's at grade eight.
Those kinds of things, like lessons learned in understanding pain points in the communities and with these individuals, help us think about how we get them the services they are qualified for.
Certainly, Mr. Chair. I'm happy to respond to that.
When I look at our action plan, the first recommendation is that we should establish a joint effort and be more coordinated with ESDC and Stats Canada to find ways to better report on what we're doing and improve the measures. We've talked about that extensively during this meeting.
We detailed a timeline that would see us form the governance for the ongoing participation of the three agencies. That has been done. We're going to keep working on that to look at better ways to update our data and to use different tools to try to get at the data we really need, but work together as three departments and agencies on that.
The other thing we've talked about, which is another recommendation, is how we get a better sense of what the results are, and better measures and better performance indicators. What are we striving to achieve, and can we measure that better than we are now, given some of the constraints that we've talked about in terms of privacy and confidentiality? We're working together on that to see what we can do together to come up with better key performance indicators that will be meaningful.
I would agree with what Lori said. When we do the outreach into communities, it may not be a one-to-one efficiency. We go in, we build trust, we get relationships and then the benefits start to come. Sometimes it takes a bit of time and effort to build that, because you can have some resistance in those communities.
We know there are benefits. How do we do a better job together of constructing good measures that tell us what we want to achieve and what success looks like, and then report on that?
The final thing is how we do a better job of presenting a seamless experience for vulnerable, hard-to-reach people. There are many benefits out there. We have some from ESDC, some from us, some from other departments and some from provincial governments, and we need to try to find a way to make that all make better sense to the people who are applying for them and who are eligible for them. I think that's the other key part of our action plan, that we put—
Thank you very much. I'm afraid the time is all out. We went a little over there, but I wanted to hear the full answer to that.
I want to thank all our witnesses for appearing today, both virtually and in person. It's good to see you. I know the auditor and her team will be back here very soon.
To our witnesses online, thank you for sharing your time with us today. We all appreciate it. We look forward to seeing you at some point down the road as well.
I'm going to keep the committee members here for a few minutes just for some announcements, but everyone else is excused. I'm going to suspend for 30 or 40 seconds, so if members could hold their seats, I will have them out of here by the half hour. Thank you.
The Chair: We will resume.
Committee members, very briefly, I had to make a change to the calendar. This is hydrogen, which I know is Mr. Dong's priority, and it will remain that, but unfortunately the deputy ministers were not available and the analysts recommended that we defer until they are. They're actually off to the COP meeting, so they have a reasonable excuse to not be available. In place, for next Friday, November 4, I've scheduled in systemic barriers in the Correctional Service of Canada.
Mr. Desjarlais might wonder why not the marine study, and that is because I have a similar challenge with the environment commissioner not being here for that either, because he's off to COP. I'm aware of priorities that I hear from members.
That's a change. We're going to try to get the hydrogen potential scheduled for November 18. I wanted to bring that to your attention.
As well, I'm in the process of coordinating our meeting with Ms. Hogan, and I think I'm going to aim for a Monday evening outside committee hours, but I'll be in touch with you. Wednesdays here are difficult because of caucus. Thursdays people tend to travel, and even Tuesdays, so my preference is a Monday evening meeting with her, but I will coordinate with you.