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Michael Ferguson
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Michael Ferguson
2017-11-30 8:48
Thank you.
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.
Michael Ferguson
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Michael Ferguson
2017-11-23 9:44
I'll answer, and I'll ask Mr. Dompierre to correct me if I go wrong on this.
If a person does not make their payment by the time it's due, then the CRA, in all likelihood, is going to charge them interest.
Then, I guess, if the person wants to take that up with the CRA, they will have to navigate the system again to get back in contact with CRA and try to say, “Well, wait a minute. You told me I had to pay it on this date, and I paid it on this date, and now you're charging me interest.” They would have to navigate that system all over again—one they perhaps had some frustration navigating in the first place—just to be able to get the original question answered. How that will end up being resolved, I don't know. It wasn't the point of the question, but it would put the individual back to having to try to take up their issue again with CRA.
Michael Ferguson
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Michael Ferguson
2017-11-23 9:46
No, we couldn't get there because, again, we weren't asking taxpayer-specific questions. To get to that type of detail, we would have had to go through a taxpayer file. We just asked the questions in a general sense.
Michael Ferguson
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Michael Ferguson
2017-11-23 9:47
Of course, as you can see, we documented all the answers we got as part of our audit procedures. We didn't go that step—as you say, that would have been a little odd—but we documented all the answers we received.
Michael Ferguson
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Michael Ferguson
2017-11-23 9:49
I'll let the committee consider whether it should bring the clerk forward. What encourages me is certainly the committee's interest in trying to get the departments and the whole government machinery to understand the importance of this aspect.
This is just something that is coming to me right now, but perhaps some sort of a review of departmental performance reports could be done to look for any indicators in them that are dealing with services to citizens. In some of those you might see that at least on the surface some of them look good, but that some of the other ones weren't really telling very much about the service. You might want to do something like that.
I probably just created a whole bunch of work for your analysts.
Michael Ferguson
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Michael Ferguson
2017-11-23 9:51
I would suggest probably a couple of things.
One is that when there is the original acceptance of a project—if you're talking about a payroll system or about Shared Services, whatever you're talking about—the chances that the project sponsor will be able to come forward at the conception point of the idea and the acceptance of the project and give a precise number for how much that is going to cost, a precise date for when it is going to be delivered, and a precise number for the end impact in terms of whether there are going to be efficiencies are slight . I would say it would be extremely rare for somebody to be able to come in at the conception of these very complex projects and say this is going to cost x number of dollars, I'm going to deliver it on this date, and it's going to save you this amount of money.
Those things need to be updated during the course of the whole project, based on what is being learned through the course of the project. There will need to be some understanding that this is starting to look more complex than originally thought, so maybe it's going to cost more or maybe we need to delay it some more.
Those things will all have to be considered: “Maybe we can't do everything we thought we were going to be able to do in the first place, or maybe we can do this, but it's not going to provide all the efficiencies that we thought.”
Those things all need to be updated during the course of the project. I think what happens too often is that these projects get anchored on amounts that were established very early on. I think that's one part of understanding these types of projects.
I would say the other thing is to never underestimate the importance of a good governance structure on complex projects. It can't all be in the hands of the individuals or the team that is responsible for delivering the project. There needs to be some oversight by people who are not just the project deliverers. Then there needs to be some independent expertise that can advise the individuals charged with the oversight. That could be by internal audit or outside evaluators, but they should be reporting to the people with the oversight, not reporting to the people who are delivering the project.
I'm not saying that's what's happened in any of these cases. I'm saying that conceptually, those are the types of things I think are needed.
Michael Ferguson
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Michael Ferguson
2017-11-23 10:07
I'll start trying to give you an explanation, and I'll ask Mr. Goulet for more details.
The graph is dealing with just the 46 departments, so it is dealing with the departments that were being served by the Miramichi pay centre. Certainly by the time all of the second wave was done, everything had been transferred, and everything that happened after that was happening in the new pay system, but of course there was a transition period in getting the 46 departments' pay requests all processed at the Miramichi pay centre. That would have happened over a period of time as their pay advisers were removed and the services were starting to be provided at the Miramichi pay centre.
I'm not sure, and maybe Mr. Goulet has the details, about exactly when those services started to move over to the pay centre, at what pace those 46 departments moved over, and by what time all of that was completed.
I'll ask Mr. Goulet to provide those details if he has them.
Michael Ferguson
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Michael Ferguson
2017-11-23 10:11
They need to resolve this very quickly. I would suggest pushing for short time frames. A 30% error rate on people coming forward with tax questions certainly is not appropriate.
They need to get their own internal quality assurance measurement. They need to get that to the point where it is accurate, so that they can track the error rate and they don't have to wait for us or somebody else to do it.
They've been doing that, but again, the process they use is not independent. For example, they will make anonymous calls to the agents as well, and ask questions similar to the ones we asked. The agents say that when they get that call, their call display shows that the call is coming from a test line, so they know this call is monitoring their performance. Again, a right answer is to say you don't know and you have to pass it on. If you know you're being monitored, you might be more likely to say you don't know and you're going to pass it on, or there might be other ways that the behaviour is being affected.
They need to have a better way of making sure they get an accurate picture of the error rate. They need to get additional training in place; then they need to be able to demonstrate very quickly that this error rate is starting to go in the right direction.
Michael Ferguson
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Michael Ferguson
2017-11-23 10:13
I see three parts to the issue. There are the people answering the questions, and they need to have the ability to answer the questions. Again, in the audit we pointed out that in some cases they have to go to a number of different screens themselves to try to find the answer. The people need the tools and training to be able to answer the question.
The department is saying they need better technology to be able to respond to more calls, so they can explain that and explain to what extent that is part of the issue.
I think the other part is that they need to look at the front end as well. They need to look at their website. In their own survey, about 40% of the people who called on the individual lines, individuals looking for answers to their tax questions, said essentially that they couldn't find the answer to their tax question on the website. That was why they were calling. I think part of what they need to do is to be able to provide better, more easily accessible information on their website. That would help reduce the calls, and it would add more consistency to the responses as well.
Michael Ferguson
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Michael Ferguson
2017-11-23 10:16
Again, I think that's part of what is particularly concerning with our results. We were not asking very complex tax questions for which people had to get into a lot of detail in the Tax Act or anything. We were asking pretty general questions for which you would expect a high rate of right answers. I can't go any further, other than to say that we were obviously very concerned about the results that we were getting in these tests.
Michael Ferguson
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Michael Ferguson
2016-04-19 15:41
Mr. Chair, we're pleased to be here today to provide an overview of our role and mandate and to outline some key points from our past audit work that may be of interest to your committee.
Our office has a mandate to audit operations of the federal and territorial governments, and we provide Parliament and the legislative assemblies with independent information, assurance, and advice regarding the stewardship of public funds.
We conduct performance audits of federal departments and agencies, and we conduct annual attest audits of the financial statements of the government and of crown corporations. On a cyclical basis, we also conduct special examinations of the systems and practices of crown corporations.
For the three territories, my office reports performance audits directly to each legislative assembly. We also conduct annual audits of the financial statements of territorial governments and annual audits of territorial corporations.
In our performance audits, which we hope help the work of your committee, we examine whether government programs are being managed with due regard for economy, efficiency and environmental impact. We also look to see if there are means in place to measure the effectiveness of programs. Although we may comment on policy implementation, we do not comment on policy itself.
The Auditor General Act gives our office discretion to determine which areas of government to examine through performance audits. Our selection of audits is based on risks, significance and relevance to Parliament.
The performance audit process takes between 12 and 18 months to complete. The results of our audits are usually presented to Parliament twice a year, in the spring and fall.
In the past 15 years, the Office of the Auditor General has audited a broad range of federal programs and activities that affect First Nations and Inuit communities.
In 2011 we published a status report on the government's progress toward achieving the commitments it made to address recommendations from seven reports we issued between 2002 and 2008. Although we found that progress had been made in implementing some of our recommendations, we noted that many conditions and challenges faced by first nations communities had worsened.
For example, the education gap among first nations individuals and other Canadians had widened, the shortage of adequate housing on reserves had become more acute, and the presence of mould on reserves remained a serious problem.
Mr. Chair, that situation led us to consider some of the factors that inhibited progress.
In the preface to our 2011 audit report, we identified four structural impediments that we believed had negatively affected the delivery of programs and services to first nations individuals and communities.
The first impediment was a lack of clarity about service levels. The federal government supported services on reserves that were provided by provincial and municipal governments off reserves, such as education and drinking water. However, it was not always clear what the federal government was aiming to achieve because it had not clearly defined the type or level of service it committed to supporting.
The second impediment was the lack of a legislative base. Unlike similar provincial programs, the programs on reserves were not supported by legislation in such key areas as education, health and safe drinking water.
Instead, the federal government developed programs and services for First Nations on the basis of policy. As a result, the services delivered under these programs were not always well defined, and there was confusion about federal responsibility for funding them adequately.
The third impediment was the lack of an appropriate funding mechanism. The federal government used contribution agreements to fund the delivery of many programs on First Nations reserves. Often, the contribution agreements had to be renewed yearly, and it was not always certain whether funding levels provided to First Nations in one year would be available the following year. This situation created a level of uncertainty for First Nations and made long-term planning difficult.
The fourth and final impediment was the lack of organizations to support local service delivery. There were often no organizations in place—such as school boards, health services boards and social service organizations—to support local delivery of programs and services. In contrast, provinces had established such organizations. Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, now Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, had started to work with groups that represented more than one First Nation, but much remained to be done.
Mr. Chair, since 2011 we have audited several programs for first nations and Inuit communities, including the nutrition north program, policing programs, emergency management, access to health services for remote first nations communities, and the implementation of the Labrador Inuit Land Claims Agreement. We found that structural impediments continue to hinder effective service delivery. I should note, however, that we have not followed up on whether the recommendations made in these audits have been implemented. Currently we are conducting audits on first nation-specific claims and on the reintegration of aboriginal offenders.
For your convenience, we have attached to this statement a list of our most recent tabled federal and territorial audits, along with a brief summary for each. You will also note that in 2015 we tabled a report on the efforts of British Columbia first nations, Health Canada, and the Province of British Columbia to overcome the impediments in establishing the First Nations Health Authority in British Columbia. For example, the funding agreement between the federal government and the authority provides a level of funding certainty. It covers a 10-year period and includes an annual escalator to account for rising health care costs. In addition, the authority has increased support to local service delivery through training and expansion of access to electronic health services.
In addition, we identified two factors that contributed to the successful negotiation of the agreement. The first factor was a sustained commitment by leaders from first nations, as well as the federal and provincial governments, to the development of a new model for providing health services to first nations in British Columbia. The second factor was the decision by first nations to establish a single point of contact for negotiations with the federal and provincial governments.
Mr. Chair, if First Nations are to experience more meaningful outcomes from the federal funding of programs and services they receive, these structural impediments will have to be addressed.
Doing this requires the political leadership and will of all involved—the federal government, the First Nations leadership, and provincial and territorial governments.
This concludes my opening statement. We would be pleased to answer any questions the committee may have.
Thank you.
Michael Ferguson
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Michael Ferguson
2016-04-19 15:51
The first think I'd like to say on this is that In 2011 we were looking back, because we were noticing that even though departments were trying to put in place responses to the recommendations we had made in past audits, the results with first nations weren't changing. We were trying to figure out why. Why could there be things going on, but with no improvement in the results? We identified those four impediments. The first thing is that the government needs to be aware of those impediments and then try to deal with them.
When we did the study and audit looking at the British Columbia First Nations Health Authority, we looked at it because it was an organization that was able to get established, and we wanted to identify how they dealt with these four impediments. In fact, they were successful in overcoming them. So it is possible, with the will of everybody involved, to find ways around these impediments and come to an agreement and a better solution on some of these services.
Therefore, I really think the first thing is awareness. The second thing is making sure that the will is there on the part of everybody involved—the government, the provincial government if needed, and the first nations governments as well. Make sure the will is there on the part of everybody involved and the commitment is there, and then find ways around these four impediments that we've identified.
Michael Ferguson
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Michael Ferguson
2016-04-19 15:53
Mr. Chair, I'll start with the response and then I'll ask Mr. Martire to speak to what we found in our audit on policing services.
The issue here is making sure that there is certainty of funding. When you're trying to provide services to people and you have a responsibility to provide those types of services, you need certainty about what the funding is going to be. We found that sometimes these contribution agreements aren't put in until late in the year. So how can you know what types of services to provide?
I'll ask Mr. Martire to expand on that, because it was particularly something that we found in the audit on policing on remote first nations.
Michael Ferguson
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Michael Ferguson
2016-04-19 15:55
As auditors, we don't try to prescribe the policy that should be put in place or exactly how the department should resolve the issues. We make recommendations.
I think that in terms of funding, we're not trying to prescribe a specific way of dealing with the funding issue. What we're trying to say is that there needs to be certainty with the funding. There needs to be a way that the different services can be planned for in the long term. Regardless of how that's done, it's more the end result—that there's certainty and an environment whereby that long-term planning can be done—that's important from our perspective.
Michael Ferguson
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Michael Ferguson
2016-04-19 15:56
Well, in a funding agreement, if what you are dealing with is multiple-year funding.... Again, in the case of the British Columbia First Nations Health Authority, they put in place a 10-year agreement. In that agreement, they also had a number of years of an escalator, so the B.C. First Nations Health Authority knows how much money it's going to get over that 10 years and knows how that's going to escalate. That allows them to do that type of planning.
Then, within that agreement, if you know what the services are that are supposed to be delivered, you know what the time frame is, and you know how the funding is going to be delivered, you have all the bases you need in order to have the accountability.
Michael Ferguson
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Michael Ferguson
2016-04-19 16:00
Again, I'm not going to try to sort of dictate any policy direction. I think in terms of the whole issue of accountability in reporting for first nations, a number of years ago we did an audit that looked at the reporting burden on first nations. I think we identified that there were something like over 160 reports that government departments at that time were requiring from first nations, some of them being very small. That was a report that we did in 2002. So it was quite a while ago, and things may have changed since then.
It is very much a matter of understanding the two-way street between the government as providing funders, and the first nations as governments that are part of that service-providing continuum, between the federal government providing services and the role of first nations in providing services.
It's very much a two-way street to try to identify the appropriate mechanism for accountability and transparency to exist within that framework.
Michael Ferguson
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Michael Ferguson
2016-04-19 16:08
Unfortunately, that was the question we were asking ourselves in 2011. We had done a number of audits going back more than 10 years on first nations issues. We had identified places where the programs were not delivering the services at the level they should have been delivering them. We were making recommendations about those. We did follow-up audits to see whether the government and the departments were implementing changes to their processes because of the recommendations we had made. We found that they were doing that. They were making changes. They were trying to respond to our recommendations, but the results weren't any better. The results among first nations were getting worse.
In 2011 we posed that exact question: what is causing this? That's when we came up with those four obstacles. If it's not clear what level of service the government should be delivering to first nations. Nobody knows who's supposed to be getting what if there isn't a clear legislative base to say, “This is what has to be provided”. It's the same type of issue: if the funding isn't there, you can't do long-term planning. If it's annual funding, you can't do long-term planning. If there aren't the organizations on the ground who are responsible for delivering those services, then the quality of those services is going to suffer. We identified those four obstacles. Based on the audits that we've done since then on policing, disaster assistance, and health services to remote first nations, we've found that those same obstacles continue to exist. I think fundamentally there needs to be a focus on those four things that we identified then, if government is to figure out how to remove those obstacles.
Michael Ferguson
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Michael Ferguson
2016-04-19 16:11
I think the first step would be to identify and to commit to a level of service. Whether it's in health services, policing services, or whatever services, what's the level of service that's going to be delivered to those first nations? I think that's the first thing.
The second thing is to make sure there is a predictable and long-term approach to funding, so everybody knows how much funding is going to be put into those services and how long that's going to be there for. These are things that happened in British Columbia in establishing the British Columbia First Nations Health Authority, so it can be done.
Michael Ferguson
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Michael Ferguson
2016-04-19 16:13
I'm not sure if I can untangle all the causes and effects, but, again, we found a number of different areas where the services were unpredictable, where it was unclear what the services were supposed to be. I couldn't even try right now to explain to you all the different types of contribution agreements that exist for funding different first nations' policing services. It's not as if there is just one type of contribution agreement that applies to all first nations. There are many different types, and it takes a bit of work to get your head around all the different contribution agreements.
Again, I think you just have to look at any of the audits. I'll go back to the audit on health services, related either to the extra training for the nurses or the fact that of some of the facilities that medical practitioners were supposed to use didn't work. In fact, one of them, a septic system, didn't work. The visiting health care physicians couldn't go there because they didn't have a place to stay while they were there. We've seen very significant impacts on services because all of the infrastructure and support necessary for those services doesn't exist for those first nations.
Again, I can't get into trying to tie it back to what sort of change might have caused some of that, but certainly, we've seen confusing amounts of contribution agreements. As Mr. Martire mentioned, some of them are for just for one year. How do you do long-term planning if that's the case? I think there's no question that has had an effect on some services.
Michael Ferguson
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Michael Ferguson
2016-04-19 16:20
If the question is specific to the first nations file, I would say that there is a whole gamut of different types of agreements in place between various levels of government. Trying to categorize them would therefore not be particularly easy. We haven't really audited this from the perspective of all of the different types of programs that are out there.
What we identified in the British Columbia First Nations Health Authority situation was that it wasn't just long-term, stable funding from the federal government to the health authority, but that it also involved provincial government funding on a long-term basis for the health authority. That is a case where we have seen it. I don't think any of the other audits....
Did we see it? Okay, Mr. Martire can speak to another case.
Michael Ferguson
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Michael Ferguson
2016-04-19 16:23
Again, I think it's probably difficult to generalize. I don't think we were necessarily looking at why they didn't exist. I think what we identified was simply that when there is a gap or absence of those types of organizations to make sure that services are delivered, it's harder to make sure that those services are getting to people.
I think it was more just a matter of identifying that in order to make sure that those first nation members were getting access to those types of services, it's important to have somebody whose job, on the ground, is to make sure that those services are actually being delivered to people.
Michael Ferguson
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Michael Ferguson
2016-04-19 16:39
Again, I think that was the fourth impediment we identified, that having support at the local level is critical to being able to make sure that these services exist in a satisfactory manner.
Michael Ferguson
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Michael Ferguson
2016-04-14 11:03
Mr. Chair, thank you for this opportunity to discuss our audit work relating to the committee's study of service delivery to veterans.
Joining me at the table are Joe Martire, principal, and Dawn Campbell, director, responsible for audits of Veterans Affairs Canada, and National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces.
For the benefit of new members, I would like to briefly explain the types of audits we are presenting to you today, which are performance audits.
Performance audits examine whether government programs are being managed with due regard for economy, efficiency, and environmental impact. We also look to see if there are means in place to measure the effectiveness of programs. However, while we may comment on policy implementation, we do not comment on the merits of policy, itself.
Since 2012, we have conducted two performance audits that focused on selected services and benefits provided to veterans. Veterans Affairs Canada was also part of a third audit that examined the delivery of online services by federal organizations.
In the fall of 2012, we reported on how National Defence and Veterans Affairs Canada managed selected programs, services and benefits to support eligible ill and injured Canadian Forces members and veterans in the transition to civilian life. We did not look at whether Canadian Forces members and veterans had received all the services and benefits for which they were eligible. Neither did we examine the fairness of departmental services and benefits available, nor the quality of medical treatment and care provided.
There are a variety of support programs, benefits and services in place to help ill and injured members of the military make the transition to civilian life. However, we found that understanding how the programs worked and accessing them was often complex, lengthy and challenging.
The lack of clear information about programs and services, the complexity of eligibility criteria, and the dependence on paper-based systems were some of the difficulties expressed by both clients and staff.
We also found inconsistencies in how individual cases were managed, as well as problems in the sharing of information between the two departments. As a result, forces members and veterans did not always receive services and benefits in a timely manner, or at all.
We found that the interdepartmental governance framework to coordinate, harmonize, and communicate the various programs, services, and benefits available to ill and injured forces members and veterans needed strengthening.
National Defence and Veterans Affairs accepted all 15 of our recommendations, which included streamlining their processes to make programs more accessible for ill and injured forces members and veterans.
In our fall 2014 report, we reported on mental health services for veterans. As of March 2014, about 15,000 veterans were eligible to receive mental health support from Veterans Affairs Canada through the disability benefits program. The proportion of the department's disability benefits clients with mental health conditions had increased from less than 2% in 2002 to almost 12% in 2014.
Our objective was to determine whether Veterans Affairs Canada had facilitated timely access to services and benefits for veterans with mental illness. We focused on the timeliness of eligibility decisions made by the department. We did not assess the appropriateness of the decisions made or the quality of care received.
For eligible veterans, the department paid for various mental health services that were not covered by provincial health care plans. These services included specialized psychological care, residential treatment, and some prescription medications.
We found that Veterans Affairs Canada had put in place important mental health supports. These included operational stress injury clinics, a 24/7 telephone service, and the Operational Stress Injury Social Support Program. However, the department was not doing enough to facilitate veterans' timely access to mental health benefits and services.
The rehabilitation program provides access to mental health care support for those veterans who are having difficulty transitioning to civilian life. Eligibility requirements are less stringent than those of the disability benefits program, but treatments and benefits end once a veteran completes the program. We found that Veterans Affairs Canada was meeting its service standards for providing timely access to mental health services through the rehabilitation program.
The disability benefits program provides lifelong access to benefits and requires that veterans provide evidence that they have a permanent mental health condition that was caused or aggravated by military service.
We found from the veterans' perspective that about 20% had to wait more than eight months from the first point of contact for the department to confirm their eligibility to access the specialized mental health services paid for by the department.
As in 2012, we found that a complex application process, delays in obtaining medical records from National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces, and long wait times to access mental health care professionals in stress injury clinics continued to be some of the factors that slow down the decision as to whether veterans are eligible for support provided through the disability benefits program.
In addition, we noted that 65% of veterans who challenged denial-of-eligibility decisions for disability benefits were successful. While the department knew that most successful challenges rely on new information or testimony, it had not analyzed how the process could be improved to obtain this information prior to rendering decisions upon first application.
Mr. Chair, Veterans Affairs Canada agreed with our recommendations, and following our report, produced an action plan with implementation deadlines ranging from December 2014 to March 2016.
Lastly, in the fall of 2013, we examined whether the online services offered by some federal organizations, including Veterans Affairs Canada, were client-focused and supported by service delivery strategies with defined and measured benefits. We did not audit service standards.
We found that the government had introduced services to enable individuals to interact online with departments securely. However, multiple steps were required to set up a secure account and then enrol in a program. For example, a retired veteran wishing to interact with the Government of Canada online to access benefits and report taxes first had to set up a secure account and then follow different enrolment processes with Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, Veterans Affairs Canada and the Canada Revenue Agency, or CRA.
While a veteran would have had immediate access to a Veterans Affairs Canada account, the wait time to receive separate security codes in the mail from Service Canada and CRA was 5 to 10 days.
Mr. Chair, we hope the findings in these audits will be useful to the committee in its study. I should note, however, that we have not done other audit work since our reports were presented to Parliament; therefore, we cannot comment on progress the departments have made since then. We encourage your committee to ask department officials what progress they have made toward implementing our recommendations.
Lastly, the committee may be interested to know that on May 3 we will present a report to Parliament on the drug benefits program provided by Veterans Affairs Canada.
This concludes my opening remarks. We would be pleased to answer any questions the committee may have.
Thank you.
Michael Ferguson
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Michael Ferguson
2016-04-14 11:14
I'll ask Ms. Campbell to provide us with some more details, but I'll just start off by saying fundamentally what we were looking at was, first, understanding that the department realized they had to do outreach, that they had to get in touch with family members and with other stakeholders in order to help identify veterans who were struggling with mental health conditions. I think we identified that they needed to do a better job of understanding how successful those outreach activities were being. Part of that was the types of people they should be reaching out to.
I'll ask Ms. Campbell perhaps to provide some more details.
Michael Ferguson
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Michael Ferguson
2016-04-14 11:16
Mr. Chair, again I think that's a very good point of discussion to have with the department.
What we were looking at here was primarily their approach to stakeholder outreach, which identified that it had primarily focused on family members and people very close to the veterans. Of course, it's extremely important for family members to be able to identify signs of mental illness.
We then said we felt they needed to put some more emphasis on family physicians, because as Ms. Campbell identified, a family physician is often a person who somebody will confide in.
We didn't take it a lot further than that to identify other types of stakeholders, but I think what you're asking is certainly something that could be put to the department to try to identify how they consider which types of stakeholders veterans might be in contact with could be in a position to identify signs that a person may need some direction with some mental health issues.
Michael Ferguson
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Michael Ferguson
2016-04-14 11:18
Again, that would have been outside of the time we were doing the audit, so I think that's something the department would have to tell you.
What we were looking at was how they were operating during that period of time rather than whether they have opened any of them.
Michael Ferguson
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Michael Ferguson
2016-04-14 11:19
The reference to the 65% is actually in the 2014 report on mental health, but that's all right because it's fundamentally the same issue.
The issue we were raising was that, once somebody gets turned down for access to these types of long-term mental health services, they go through appeal and then they are approved for it. It's because somewhere in that appeal process what we've referred to as new information has come forward, but you're right, it may simply be that new information may be information that already existed but was not brought forward during the original evaluation.
Really the point of this, I think, is to understand why 65% of the appeals are successful. If there's information that can be learned from that, it says that if people brought forward this type of information early on, then they would have been approved originally and wouldn't have had to go through the appeal process.
That's exactly the issue that this is raising, for the department to be able to analyze the reason that they're overturning appeals and to feed that back into their original process to try to make the original process more efficient for the veterans trying to access the services.
Michael Ferguson
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Michael Ferguson
2016-04-14 11:21
We weren't really looking at all of those individual interactions per se, but what we looked at was the length of time the process took. Originally, we were looking at how long it took from the point in time that an application came in until they made the first decision.
In fact the department had in place a standard for how long they would take to make that original decision, but part of what we also identified was that, in measuring that time period from when an application comes in until when a decision is made, that doesn't take into account how long it takes a veteran to complete the application in the first place. We found that the application was complex and it was difficult for them to complete.
So you can end up in a situation where the department, because they are measuring the time period from application to decision, is saying that they have met their standard, but the veteran is frustrated because the veteran had to try to navigate all of the time to prepare the application in the first place. That's really the issue that we're raising in that.
Michael Ferguson
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Michael Ferguson
2016-04-14 11:23
I'm glad that you raised that, because when we're talking about that time period, it's in the disability benefits program, which is the access to the longer-term services. They also have the rehabilitation program, where I believe the decision was being made within two weeks, which was for shorter-term services.
I'll ask Ms. Campbell if she wants to add anything to that.
Michael Ferguson
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Michael Ferguson
2016-04-14 11:26
That really wasn't the focus of what we were looking at in this area. Really, we were looking at the appeal process, so that if the original decision gets overturned, how the department learn from that process to improve its original process, as opposed to specifically the angle of the question you are asking.
Michael Ferguson
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Michael Ferguson
2016-04-14 11:27
Where we are feeling positive is that the department has taken all of our findings and recommendations very seriously. When we presented to them and discussed with them the results of the audits, they understood these were things that needed to be fixed and that they needed to change how they were operating this program.
In terms of this audit, the thing we identified here was that they needed to have a better feedback process to learn from the appeal decisions to make the original application process better.
Michael Ferguson
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Michael Ferguson
2016-04-14 11:28
Whether it's Veterans Affairs and this program or it's any other program, performance measures are important to understand whether the intended outcomes, the results of a program, are being achieved or not. Having a way of knowing whether the program is doing what it's supposed to be doing is very important.
One of the issues in this audit, in particular though, about performance measures is that they had a performance measure in place around processing the application, how long it took to process the application. They were pretty close to meeting that target, but it was only measuring one part of the process. It wasn't measuring all of these other parts, including the appeal or how long it takes to fill out an application.
Matching up performance measures with the entire intended outcome of a program is not easy to do, but that is really what performance measures need to do. It's whether the program is achieving what it's supposed to be achieving. It is good to measure individual activities, but those individual activities need to somehow get into an overall measure of whether the program is achieving what it's intended to achieve.
Michael Ferguson
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Michael Ferguson
2016-04-14 11:31
Again, it's really the department that needs to sort of speak to the overall design of the program, but I think what you're identifying is similar to the first question. It's about all of that outreach, isn't it?
The department needs to make sure it identifies all of those places where veterans with mental health conditions are in contact with various types of service providers, and how those service providers know how to interact with the veterans with a mental health condition, but as well, how all of that information could also come back to the department. As you say, to say there's an individual here now.... I mean, Ms. Campbell talked about some of the other services that the department has in place—the hotline, outreach, and some of those other things—but I really think the department should explain to you how all of those services fit together, how they do their outreach to the various stakeholders and people who are touched by this whole program, and how they draw information from people who would know something about individual veterans as well.
Again, I think it's really the department that needs to explain all of those different points of contact.
Michael Ferguson
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Michael Ferguson
2016-04-14 11:34
Again, I think the department will need to talk to the approach they take to each individual application coming in. But I think a couple of things you mentioned that are important are, number one, we did identify that the sharing of information between National Defence and Veterans Affairs was not being done in a timely manner. That showed up in both of the audits, the audit we did on the transition of ill and injured military personnel to civilian life, and also the audit on mental health services. It's a matter of having a way of making sure that this information is shared.
The other thing, though, that we found in the audit of the transition of ill and injured members to civilian life was that when we looked at the Veterans Affairs' rehabilitation database—and remember this was in 2012—we found there were significant errors in the data that had been transferred. If you're starting out with a database that has errors in it, that's going to cause problems throughout the process of considering what types of benefits somebody might be eligible for.
Certainly, making sure there's timely sharing of information, I think, is something that is critical to improving these types of services, but then also it's making sure that there are sufficient quality-management steps around the data to make sure the data being shared is accurate.
Michael Ferguson
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Michael Ferguson
2016-04-14 11:36
I guess the short answer is that this wasn't part of the audit, so we didn't actually look at that.
Michael Ferguson
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Michael Ferguson
2016-04-14 11:37
Again, I think what we were looking at was whether the information got fed back in. I'll ask Ms. Campbell to elaborate whether there was anything done on the training side.
One thing, and it's outside of this audit, we also recently released an audit on Canada pension plan disability and access to that. We actually found a very similar thing. Something I think a number of government departments need to start to build into their processes is that when they have a process that includes this type of an adjudication and appeal process, learning from that and feeding it back into the process should be a really important part.
I'll ask Ms. Campbell if there is anything else she'd like to elaborate on.
Michael Ferguson
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Michael Ferguson
2016-04-14 11:39
I think they would have to answer that question. I can't answer that.
Michael Ferguson
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Michael Ferguson
2016-04-14 11:40
In the 2012 audit on the transition of ill and injured members, we made a recommendation that National Defence and the Canadian Forces and Veteran Affairs Canada should ensure that their databases contain reliable information and that Canadian Forces and Veteran Affairs processes are managed to facilitate the timely and efficient sharing of authorized information. That's in paragraph 4.28 of that audit and there's a response from each of the departments there.
We recognize that trying to start from scratch and put in place a comprehensive system that's going to cover everything, that type of thing, takes a long time. Recognizing that, they still need to find ways of making sure they are sharing information in a timely fashion and that the information that's being shared is accurate, and if the information has to be re-entered into another system, that there's a way of making sure that it is re-entered properly.
Certainly, we made a recommendation that they should facilitate that efficient sharing of information.
Michael Ferguson
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Michael Ferguson
2016-04-14 11:45
I want to begin by pointing out that our audit examines the way the department processes applications for services. It focuses only on how the department handles those issues. Our audit did not look into what other countries are doing.
Generally speaking, I think the burden of proof is problematic for military members. It is especially important in mental health, as the audit shows. It is difficult for a member of the armed forces to admit that they are having mental health issues and to ask for help. That is an obstacle in the program in general.
The veteran must begin by deciding that they need help. Then, they have to prepare their application properly and perhaps file an appeal in case of a refusal. That is a cultural aspect of this kind of a program.
Michael Ferguson
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Michael Ferguson
2016-04-14 11:48
I think that is another consideration for the department. During this audit, we identified the various types of services available, including the hotline. However, it is up to the department to decide whether specific services for veterans should be implemented. That was not something we covered in our audit.
Michael Ferguson
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Michael Ferguson
2016-04-14 11:50
I would go to the overall finding that we had on this item in paragraph 3.50 in the audit on mental health services for veterans, where we said, “Overall, we found that Veterans Affairs Canada’s mental health outreach strategy is not comprehensive enough.” We didn't get down to the rural-urban type of issue or those types of things, but what we felt was that the strategy needed to do some more in terms of areas like outreach to family doctors and families of veterans. There was still more that they could do. The types of things that you are talking about are maybe other things that perhaps they had considered or that they should consider. The department would have to go to that detail, but fundamentally, what we felt was that their strategy wasn't comprehensive enough.
Michael Ferguson
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Michael Ferguson
2016-04-14 11:52
I believe that was the recommendation we made about providing mental health outreach. The department has said they will use online tools such as a My VAC Account, and they will continue to invest in the online environment to help veterans and their families find information quickly and easily. Through budget 2014 the Government of Canada committed $2.1 million to make further improvements to the My VAC Account.
That was the response we got after this audit. They said they had received more money to put into it. But what's happened since then I don't know because again we haven't gone back to see what they've done. They made a commitment to make those improvements to the My VAC Account and they had committed $2.1 million to do that.
Michael Ferguson
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Michael Ferguson
2016-04-14 11:53
When we are doing audits we always focus on a way of measuring outcomes and performance. That is a change to the inputs, the resources going into a program. The natural expectation is that if more resources are going into a program there will be better outcomes, but those two things don't necessarily always go hand in hand. I think it's important that whenever there is a change like that or a commitment to do something else or invest more in a program, there needs to be a good way of measuring if it is having the intended outcome.
Making sure there's that performance measurement attached to that increase in resources, I think, will let us know whether it's having the effect it's supposed to have.
Michael Ferguson
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Michael Ferguson
2016-04-14 11:57
I think what your question is leading to is that there are, I'll call it, three stages, and what we looked at was two of them. We looked at once somebody has been discharged, they're a veteran, they're in civilian life, and now they're facing mental health issues, how do they get access to that?
The audit we did in 2012 was looking at people who are about to come out of the military, how they make the transition to civilian life, and what types of supports are there to help them make that transition. Part of that might be to identify that they might need some help with some mental health issues.
You're talking about even before those two things. When somebody is a serving member and they are going through incidents that could have an impact on their mental health, how do Canadian Forces and National Defence manage that? I can't speak to that because that wasn't the aspect we looked at.
The way you started the question was whether there's another audit that could be done. Something we could consider looking at is how National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces look at managing the experiences that Canadian Forces members go through.
We would have to consider that, I guess. I'll let Mr. Martire add to that.
Michael Ferguson
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Michael Ferguson
2016-04-14 12:01
I guess we're all struggling to figure out exactly which recommendation.
Michael Ferguson
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Michael Ferguson
2016-04-14 12:01
If I may, based on our recommendations we have had responses from the department. The department has put in place an action plan to try to deal with those issues.
I think to the more general point of your question, what we tried to do in both of these audits was to put ourselves in the shoes of the individual, in the shoes of the veteran, in the shoes of the Canadian Forces member who was making the transition to civilian life. We were trying to look at all of the things the person has to go through to get those services or to make that transition. I think there are some things the department needs to do, and the action plan that you're referring to lays out a number of steps that they're supposed to take.
Fundamentally, at the end of all of this, the intention is that there should be a better experience for the veteran with the types of services they are getting. That's what all the recommendations are aimed at, so it's less important. Sometimes what happens is that departments get focused on trying to do something to say they dealt with our recommendation, but what they need to be doing is to be making sure they're putting the focus on the end service, and the end experience of the individual, as a much better experience.
Michael Ferguson
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Michael Ferguson
2016-04-14 12:03
Well, the rehabilitation program is designed as a short-term program, but the disability program is designed for longer-term issues.
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