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Alex Benay
View Alex Benay Profile
Alex Benay
2019-05-30 8:51
Thank you, Mr. Chair, for the invitation to appear before your committee. I'll begin with a few brief remarks and I'll be happy to take any questions you may have.
My name is Alex Benay. l'm the Chief Information Officer of Canada at the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat.
I am responsible for providing strategic direction and for the implementation of policies relating to service, information management, information technology, security, privacy and access to information across the federal government.
The finding in the Auditor General's most recent report identified opportunities where Treasury Board policy direction can be strengthened to better support improvements to call centres. The Auditor General made several recommendations that will help the Government of Canada fulfill its commitment to improve service delivery to Canadians.
Over the past few years, TBS has developed various policy instruments to help departments take a more client-centric approach to the design and delivery of services, including the development and publication of service standards. While we've made progress, we agree that there is still much work to be done.
l'm glad to say that we have already begun this work. Currently, the Treasury Board Secretariat is reviewing existing policy instruments, with the goal of identifying opportunities to strengthen policies to better support improved services through all service delivery channels, including call centres.
For example, we recently introduced a set of digital standards that will help guide departments and agencies in designing better services for Canadians. One of its key principles is to design and develop services with users in mind and to work with them to understand their needs and the problems we want to solve. While they may be called digital standards, they are, in fact, applicable to all the service delivery channels whether they are offered online, in person or by telephone.
In spring 2018, the government approved targeted amendments to the policy on the management of information technology and the policy on the management of information, setting the foundation for the long-term development of a comprehensive policy on service and digital for the Government of Canada.
This proposed policy will build on the client-centric principles of the current Policy on Service, and provide direction for the design and development of seamless, integrated services that meet the needs and expectations of the Canadian public.
We're also working on enhancing our existing guidance and tools to support the development and publication of clear and consistent client-centric service standards. Both the proposed new policy and its supporting directive and guidance will incorporate changes to ensure that government services have comprehensive and transparent client-centric standards, related targets and performance information for all service delivery channels in use, including call centres.
The Treasury Board Secretariat will continue to work with federal departments and agencies to ensure service standards for call centres are more consistent, meaningful and transparent to Canadians.
In closing, I look forward to your committee's report and recommendations on this important issue.
Thank you for your time, and I'll be happy to answer any questions you may have.
View David Christopherson Profile
NDP (ON)
That's good. I'll just weave in my message and keep saying how wonderful you are, because you understand how bad it is that the government's not giving the Auditor General enough money to do his job. That's why I'm so pleased to see.... No, I won't do that.
I thank you, Chair.
Secretary, what troubled me, on page 16, 1.62 stood out. “We found that the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat developed a government-wide service strategy in 2017: the Government of Canada Clients First Service Strategy.” That sounds great. “The strategy prioritized providing services online but did not include call centres or mention the government-wide modernization of call centres, despite the fact that they continue to be an important way for clients to get information.”
That number is 25%, a quarter of all Canadians use that. How on earth did you get to the point where you were planning contact for services for Canadians, and never gave a thought to the phone? Twenty-five per cent of Canadians.... Given the fact that Michael Ferguson's mantra was, again, “Do service well”, don't measure how well you move paper or a message from one desk to another. Measure the outcome for citizens and how they are, or are not, receiving the services they're entitled to.
How could something this obvious—a quarter of all Canadians—be overlooked in this grand strategy?
Alex Benay
View Alex Benay Profile
Alex Benay
2019-05-30 10:09
When the service strategy was issued in 2017, it was supposed to be channel agnostic. Since then we looked at the recommendations from the Auditor General and will integrate phones into the next series and issues of our June release for the digital policy and all the policy instruments that will come with it, and we will become very specific on various service channels.
Alex Benay
View Alex Benay Profile
Alex Benay
2019-05-30 10:10
The thinking at the time was that an agnostic service strategy was a better approach.
Alex Benay
View Alex Benay Profile
Alex Benay
2019-05-30 10:10
Not necessarily targeting one particular service channel. It could be mail. It could be in person. It could be digital. The thinking at the time was that an agnostic approach was good. At this point we've seen all the recommendations from the OAG and we'll move to make every service channel clear.
View David Christopherson Profile
NDP (ON)
People are paid good money to be planners. The whole idea is that they're supposed to think these things through. I understand if it was a small percentage, but a quarter of all Canadians? That's really disheartening. It's further disheartening that you don't seem to be able to acknowledge when anything is wrong. All you want to do is talk about how wonderful things are. I've told deputies before, don't come in here and be defensive. Do what the Auditor General did and approach the criticism that way. If it's wrong, say so, admit it, acknowledge you failed, and then say what you're going to do about it.
Don't spin. That's our job.
Voices: Oh, oh!
Michael Ferguson
View Michael Ferguson Profile
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.
View Chandra Arya Profile
Lib. (ON)
View Chandra Arya Profile
2017-11-30 9:28
In your response, you say that you're proud of the work that your employees carry out every day. Who are those managers who gave you the internal report stating that 90% of the callers were able to reach you? That is a totally inaccurate report. Are you still proud of those managers who are responsible for that?
Bob Hamilton
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Bob Hamilton
2017-11-30 9:28
I'm actually very proud of the people who work at the CRA. I spent my first year visiting most if not all of the call centres. I've sat beside some of the people answering the phones, and I've sat in the rooms where they're trying to direct the calls through the system we have.
Bob Hamilton
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Bob Hamilton
2017-11-30 9:28
I want to say that I am actually very proud of the people who work on our systems, and I think they're doing the best job they can with the technology they have. They've actually shown some innovation and a lot of integrity here.
We're going to give them the tools they want. On the reporting side, in the past we have focused our reporting on meeting the “80% within two minutes” objective. We are now broadening that out to, I think, provide a more comprehensive view of what's going on.
As I said earlier—
Bob Hamilton
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Bob Hamilton
2017-11-30 9:29
Right. We have focused on the 80% within two minutes. We are now going to provide more comprehensive reporting. In the departmental results report, we started to report on the more complete picture. Yes, there is that. If you get through, it's within two minutes, but we know that there are people who are not getting through. We want to report on that and we want to make progress on all of those fronts.
For example, that's one of the reasons why we experimented with increasing the wait time to see if we could change that, because it is a choice that has to be made in terms of how many people can come through and how quickly they can be served, until we get the new technology, which will allow us to provide wait times to people, and they can choose whether they'd like to wait.
View Chandra Arya Profile
Lib. (ON)
View Chandra Arya Profile
2017-11-30 9:30
Were the resources a constraint for you at any time in order to improve the technology and deliver better service to taxpayers?
Bob Hamilton
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Bob Hamilton
2017-11-30 9:30
In that regard, I think, we always do the best we can with the resources we have. We don't have infinite resources, so we always have to make choices about what we do.
I'm telling you now that we are going to be investing in this technology, but I don't want to give you the sense that it's just technology. That will be a big help to us, but we are taking steps before then. We need to look at our systems. We need to look at our training. All of those things will be ongoing pressures.
The other thing I haven't mentioned, which is interesting to note, is that service is a more comprehensive vehicle than just call centres, and we have to think about the information that we provide in general in the service area. How's our website? Can people go there and get the information they want, to the point where they don't need to call as often?
We're looking at all of the aspects of how we provide information to Canadians, but today we're talking about the call centres. Technology will be a big change for us, but we also, as I said, are looking at our training and our systems and making sure that we're giving our people all the tools they need.
Bob Hamilton
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Bob Hamilton
2017-11-30 9:32
I am not very surprised by the results.
We knew there were problems with access. We made the choice to have a wait time of less than two minutes, but that was necessary because clients were getting a busy signal. The result as to the veracity of the answers shows that there is certainly room for improvement, as well as the fact that our report is perhaps not as transparent as it should be.
There are things to be improved, but it is not a big surprise.
View Gérard Deltell Profile
CPC (QC)
Mr. Hamilton, your service failed to deliver 84% of the time. It failed 84% of the time.
You say you are not surprised, but what did you do not to be surprised? How can it be that you are not surprised that your service did not work 84% of the time?
That is unacceptable, sir.
Bob Hamilton
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Bob Hamilton
2017-11-30 9:33
I will not comment on that 84%.
Overall, we have to improve the training for agents and make sure that the answers provided to taxpayers are accurate.
Also, we have to continually improve the agency's services.
View Gérard Deltell Profile
CPC (QC)
Okay, we can all improve in life, we get that.
Yet with an 84% failure rate, you do not need to improve; you need to shake things up or else we have to start over from scratch. Come on, it is not a question of improving. You need a change in course and a kick in the backside to get things working properly.
Mr. Hamilton, if you wanted to hire someone and they got 16% on their test, would you hire them?
View Gérard Deltell Profile
CPC (QC)
Mr. Hamilton, do you realize that what you just said is an insult to the 84% of people who call and do not get the service to which they are entitled and which they pay for?
Bob Hamilton
View Bob Hamilton Profile
Bob Hamilton
2017-11-30 9:35
That is why we have an action plan to improve the situation.
View Gérard Deltell Profile
CPC (QC)
Mr. Hamilton, what I find very disappointing is the way you are talking about this as though it were a question of making a few improvements. We are talking about an 84% failure rate. What is needed here is not an improvement: you need to completely review the structure and, above all, the culture.
How have you been able to keep your job with an 84% failure rate?
Bob Hamilton
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Bob Hamilton
2017-11-30 9:35
Once again, that 84% pertains to a question in a survey.
I said we have to improve the situation. Overall, we have to provide accurate information to Canadians. We will take measures to improve through technology and training, and find out what exactly the problem is. We will be able to receive calls, better understand the source of the problems, and correct them. That is my commitment in this regard.
That is my answer.
View Gérard Deltell Profile
CPC (QC)
That is your answer but it is unacceptable to Canadians.
What was done was more than a survey: it was demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt that things are not working. You say that the technology has to be improved. That is not true. The role of technology is to support effectiveness; it is not the source of the problems. In the current culture, you are not worried about this. When you say that it is just a survey question and all that is needed is improvement, it is as though you are burying your head in the sand. I am sorry to have to be so harsh, Mr. Hamilton, but your answers are not acceptable.
Bob Hamilton
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Bob Hamilton
2017-11-30 9:37
I have fully understood the questions and the problems and have committed to improving the situation through the action plan. It is clear that technology will improve our situation and will allow us to direct the questions to people who can answer fairly complex questions. Further, we now offer better training to these people and provide them with better tools.
I have taken the recommendations very seriously. We will make changes at the agency in order to offer better service to Canadians.
Bob Hamilton
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Bob Hamilton
2017-11-30 9:57
I would just say that more information can be better, typically, and if we could typically report.... We answered calls within two minutes 80% of the time. That doesn't say anything about how many people didn't get through, so I would call that inadequate information. It's not misleading. It's not inaccurate, but it doesn't tell a part of the story that would be of interest to Canadians.
View David Christopherson Profile
NDP (ON)
It is inaccurate to say your error rate is 6%, and it's actually 30%. You don't think that's misleading? You don't think that's inaccurate?
View Gérard Deltell Profile
CPC (QC)
Thank you, Mr. Chair.
In your introduction earlier, you said something that was right on the mark. In fact, I am convinced that the 337 other members of the House of Commons share your opinion.
We have received a lot of calls from Canadians who were outraged by this. These people are not millionaires or people who hire an accountant to fill out their tax return. They are ordinary citizens with a modest income. In most cases, they are seniors. Eight times out of ten, or 84% of the time, these people were not able to talk to an agent or, even worse, got incorrect information.
Did these people pay too much tax or not enough? That is the question, and it is obviously the first one that comes to mind for them.
Did they pay too much tax as a result of the incorrect information they were given?
Mr. Hamilton, what recourse do these people have?
Bob Hamilton
View Bob Hamilton Profile
Bob Hamilton
2017-11-30 10:09
The taxpayer relief provisions are important, but I think providing accurate information to people is even more important.
So it is by ensuring that the information is accurate and appropriate that we can improve. I think the agency has shown integrity over the years and that people have to trust it. To my mind, we have to ensure that we are providing the best information possible to Canadians. Since this is a very important responsibility for the agency, we will make improvements in this regard.
Bob Hamilton
View Bob Hamilton Profile
Bob Hamilton
2017-11-30 10:11
Mr. Chair, it's an interesting question. I'm pleased to say that the morale in this area is high.
I'll just refer to the example last year on the appeals audit, which, again, was difficult for us because it pointed to a number of shortcomings in our appeals process in terms of timeliness. We weren't giving information in a way that tax payers expected. When I talked to the appeals people afterwards, they were actually somewhat energized. To go back, people there understand some of the problems in the system. When we have a motivated action plan to correct it, they get energized by it.
I did ask the question. I sent out the message, as indicated, to tell people about the report, the importance for us, and the importance of improving. I asked the representatives from the call centres how people are feeling. They said that they actually feel good. They're feeling that this is an opportunity for us to really improve, to make sure that we're giving them the right tools. We have the technology on the horizon, but there will be an importance, a priority, attached to this by virtue of what I'm doing and by virtue of what Frank and Gillian are doing. People are seizing that opportunity.
We have to deliver on that. I know that will be an issue for the committee and the Auditor General. Are we going to commit to improving the way that we've laid out in our action plan? I believe that we will. Our employees will be expecting that and putting our feet to the fire.
For the moment I can say, yes, they're feeling motivated to make improvements to the system.
View Alexandra Mendès Profile
Lib. (QC)
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair. Thank you all for being here.
I'm going to follow up on my colleagues' points, Mr. Christopherson's and Mr. Deltell's, about the fact that taxpayers are citizens. Taxpayers expect a government that provides services to them that are accurate and timely.
When someone calls one of the call centres to ask for tax information and is given an erroneous answer, that will most automatically cause someone, in good faith, to submit an erroneous return. He or she is going to make a return that is mistaken because of the information he or she received. Mr. Deltell asked what recourse they have. Almost automatically the agency actually does the calculations and eventually will give us a proper amount. However, when we owe money to the agency, we're charged interest. When the agency owes money to us, not one red cent is paid in interest. For some people this is a big issue. It's a lot of money. They did it in good faith. They actually produced their returns in good faith.
Why are we continuing to provide bad information to people? If somebody doesn't know the answer, they should tell the citizen that they don't know the answer. Refer them to somebody who can answer them. But giving erroneous information is extremely harmful. I really can't understand how for years—this is not recent, this is not one time, this has been going on for awhile—we can continue to sustain a service that is providing erroneous information to citizens.
Bob Hamilton
View Bob Hamilton Profile
Bob Hamilton
2017-11-30 10:22
I think, Mr. Chair, this goes back to my earlier point. One can construct different measures of how one is doing. Again, the 80% in two minutes is one measure. What I prefer, and my commitment, is to make sure we're presenting the total picture. We can talk.... I'll let Frank speak a little bit about the potential, I think, of 87% or 90%, which could be caller acceptance—
View Alexander Nuttall Profile
CPC (ON)
There is only one perspective that matters here. That is the perspective of the people we're serving. Those are the people who are calling in. Those are the callers. From the callers' perspective, it's a 36% rate. From your department's perspective, it's a 90% rate. That is a huge variance. That actually is the best example of the culture issues that are so obviously existing. I don't think there's a member around this table right now who is thinking, “Yeah, we don't really have culture issues; we need a little bit more transparency and maybe we need to train some people better and get some better technology, and CRA is off to the races”.
I don't think that is a thing. That's the message I'm hearing, and I don't think that's a thing that exists around this table. I think you need to go back. I want to know who came up with the system to say that over half the callers aren't actually callers. I want to know who came out with these results, because they just don't make sense.
Michael Ferguson
View Michael Ferguson Profile
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.
View Alexander Nuttall Profile
CPC (ON)
I know this wasn't necessarily the direct focus of the report, but have we seen circumstances when incorrect information was given out by the federal government and the federal government then changed the amount they're saying is owed, based on the information they gave out originally, or did we just not get there?
Michael Ferguson
View Michael Ferguson Profile
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.
View Kevin Sorenson Profile
CPC (AB)
Thank you, Mr. Nuttall. You have 10 seconds, but I'll take it.
Did you ever ask CRA, when you were given false information, if you could have that answer in writing? I've been told by constituents—and it's probably happened to us—that when you're on the phone after finally getting through, after being blocked so many times, when you get the information, all you have is really your word against somebody else's, because it's on the phone.
Would you ever ask if you could have that answer in an email or in writing?
Martin Dompierre
View Martin Dompierre Profile
Martin Dompierre
2017-11-23 9:47
Mr. Chair, we did not make that sort of specific request. We were trying to keep the exchange anonymous as we were getting a right or wrong answer. If it was right, we were saying thank you; if not, we were cutting off the conversation at that point—
Michael Ferguson
View Michael Ferguson Profile
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.
View Paul Lefebvre Profile
Lib. (ON)
View Paul Lefebvre Profile
2017-11-23 9:47
Merci, monsieur le président.
I'd like to continue on the concern raised by Mr. Christopherson with respect to the comments you started and finished your statement with, Mr. Ferguson. I'll cite them:
I find myself delivering this message audit after audit, and year after year because we still see that departments are focused on their own activities, and not on the citizen's perspective. The audits we have delivered this week are no exception, as you will see.
Mr. Christopherson asked you, with respect, what more we can do to try to improve or change the way the government provides the services. From what I'm seeing, most of the time our public service is focused on delivering a program on time and on budget—basically, to deliver it and get results—and the lens of the citizen is not something that is taken into account.
I'm wondering whether you think it's a good idea that we bring the Clerk of the Privy Council to this committee and have that discussion as to how we can change or add that lens, to ensure that it is provided by the Clerk of the Privy Council to all deputy ministers.
Michael Ferguson
View Michael Ferguson Profile
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.
View Paul Lefebvre Profile
Lib. (ON)
View Paul Lefebvre Profile
2017-11-23 9:50
That's great, that's fine, because I'm looking at the macro level right now. We're going to have the time to deal with all of your reports one by one, and we will go through all of them. I hope we do.
That brings me to my second question.
In my observations in the past few years of being here, every time there was a transformational program or they were trying to transform something—and we saw it with Shared Services, and now we're seeing it with Phoenix, which are large projects and we all recognize that—it's as if there's an incapacity or a serious difficulty in basically getting the result that is aimed for. It's a concern that program after program and transformation after transformation, we're either off budget, or we're not on time, or we're not getting the results, or it's not at all what we thought it was because of various reasons.
What internal changes should be brought forward? If we keep doing the same thing in the next project when we're trying to transform or change something that we've done in the past, from what I'm seeing, we'll just get the same results.
How can you advise our public service and the deputy ministers? When they have a new project to transform or change something, what can be added? What has to be done?
Michael Ferguson
View Michael Ferguson Profile
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.
View Shaun Chen Profile
Lib. (ON)
Thank you very much. I want to start off by thanking the Auditor General and his team for their outstanding work and this set of reports.
I want to echo the concerns that have been expressed by my colleagues around the table, particularly Mr. Christopherson. He pointed to the Auditor General's opening statement in which he expressed the overall message that audit after audit, year after year, we still see that departments are focused on their own activities, not on the citizens' perspectives.
We've talked around the table today about the concerns of citizens, the experiences of citizens, the service to citizens. I want to start off by taking a moment to first deconstruct this terminology, because I believe it's very important that we are clear on who we serve. That, to me, is Canadians, in the most general, broadest, and most inclusive sense, whether we are talking about the oral health of first nations and Inuit children, or Syrian refugees who have now been welcomed to their new home, or indigenous women offenders who are not provided with culturally appropriate programs, or women offenders in general who are subjected to correctional programs designed for men, not women. To me, we need to be clear that we are talking about all Canadians and to understand who they are and be able to provide the types of services and programming that very clearly meet the needs of all Canadians.
With that said, I want to focus on the audit with respect to the Phoenix pay system.
Exhibit 1.2 on page 7 of the Auditor General's report shows a graph of the number of public servants with outstanding pay requests in 46 departments and agencies. This graph shows very clearly that over the course of two years, under the Miramichi pay centre, there were 15,000 public servants with outstanding pay requests. That number goes up to 35,000 in January 2016, when Phoenix was first adopted, and then we see an exponential increase in the number of outstanding pay requests, going up to the latest number, in June 2017, of 150,000.
If I were to take this graph at face value, I would understand it to be what it is described as—46 departments and agencies, the public services under those departments. However, reading the report tells me something a bit different. It points out that these outstanding pay requests were not capturing the information from all 46 departments over those two years, because some of them were not on board with those systems.
I'd like to hear the Auditor General's comment on what this means. To me, at face value, it means a significant and very worrisome increase in the number of cases. However, reading the report tells me that this increase can be attributed to departments that perhaps were not on the Miramichi pay system or the Phoenix pay system at certain points in time.
I'd like to hear the Auditor General's comments.
Michael Ferguson
View Michael Ferguson Profile
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.
View Alexander Nuttall Profile
CPC (ON)
Thank you, Mr. Chair.
I wanted to continue with the CRA audit. After determining a 30% inaccuracy rate in the information provided by persons working for the CRA, your report goes into the information that's provided by CRA in their auditing of their own activities, whether it's inaccuracy—their 6% rate versus your 30%—or the number of calls, because they don't include the blocked calls or calls that don't reach somebody in that process.
You recommend training. You recommend better services in tracking what's going on at the CRA. What do you recommend as a follow-up time period? To go from a 30% inaccuracy rate, what would be a good timeline for us to look at this and to ask for more information on changes that hopefully won't be needed?
Michael Ferguson
View Michael Ferguson Profile
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.
View Alexander Nuttall Profile
CPC (ON)
Where is the issue? In your opinion, is this a top-down issue at this point? Is this strictly a training issue, whether it's on the quality assurance side or the people who are facing the client?
Michael Ferguson
View Michael Ferguson Profile
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.
View Alexander Nuttall Profile
CPC (ON)
With all that said, if your business is taxation and somebody asks you when the interest is going to be charged on taxes owing, this is basically almost as easy a question as you can get. It amazes me that we need a screen to do that. How is it that we don't have training in place to show these people? This is basic.
If somebody called me when I was a banker and asked, “Alex, when does the interest start accruing?”, I knew the answer to that every single time—and it's different on every single deal—because I just know my business. How do our employees not know their business when it comes to everybody in the country having the same answer?
Michael Ferguson
View Michael Ferguson Profile
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.
Maurice Laplante
View Maurice Laplante Profile
Maurice Laplante
2016-06-16 8:48
Thank you, Mr. Chair, for giving us this opportunity to discuss our special examination report on VIA Rail Canada Inc. I am accompanied today by René Béliveau, the principal responsible for this audit.
A special examination of a crown corporation is somewhat similar to a performance audit. In particular, a special examination seeks to determine whether the crown corporation's systems and practices provide reasonable assurance that its assets are safeguarded, its resources are managed economically and efficiently, and its operations are carried out effectively.
Our examination covered the period between November 2013 and September 2015. Our examination identified a significant deficiency in the corporation's governance. We found that, despite VIA's efforts to define a long-term strategic direction, the corporation still did not have a long-term plan or direction approved by the federal government.
For several years now, VIA's five-year corporate plan and funding have been approved only on a short-term basis, and often late in the corporation's fiscal year. In that context, VIA could not fulfill its mandate as economically, efficiently, and effectively as desired. If it continues, this significant deficiency could even compromise the corporation's medium- and long-term viability.
We found that the corporation had improved its practices in several areas. For example, in the strategic planning area, we noted that the corporation had the key elements of a risk management framework, had a performance measurement process that enabled VIA to follow up on its operations, and adequately communicated its results. In the operation area, we found that VIA had systems and practices that enabled it to meet the needs of its customers, mitigate safety risks, and ensure the reliability of its operations, the safeguarding and control of its assets, and the quality of its services.
We also identified room for improvement in some areas. In particular, VIA needs to improve its profitability analysis mechanisms, the documentation of its safety management system, and the mechanisms used to measure the effectiveness of that system. VIA also needs to pursue planned improvements to its project management systems and practices, which did not adequately support the implementation of certain significant projects of the capital investment program approved by the government in 2007 and 2009.
We further found that VIA had not met its strategic objectives of increasing revenues in ridership so as to ensure its longer-term viability. The results analysis for VIA indicated that between the 2010 and 2014 fiscal years, revenues increased by only $5 million, whereas total operating costs increased by $61 million. We also noted that ridership decreased by 350,000 passengers during the same period.
In addition, on-time performance of trains has worsened significantly since 2010, from 82% to 76%, largely because of the significant increase in congestion on the rail network that VIA has to use.
Moreover, VIA did not succeed in increasing the frequency of train departures, as it anticipated when it negotiated the renewal of its main service agreement with the railway companies that own the railway tracks. The corporation will need to find lasting solutions to those problems if it is to ensure its long-term viability.
VIA Rail agreed with all our recommendations, and indicated that it would act quickly to address our concerns. However, since our audit was completed in September 2015, I cannot comment on any measures that have been taken since then. The committee may wish to ask VIA officials to clarify what measures have been taken in response to our recommendations.
Mr. Chair, this concludes my opening remarks. We would be pleased to answer any questions the committee may have.
Thank you.
Yves Desjardins-Siciliano
View Yves Desjardins-Siciliano Profile
Yves Desjardins-Siciliano
2016-06-16 8:54
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
As you mentioned, I am joined today by Ms. Jane Mowat, lead director and chairperson of the audit and finance committee; Mr. Bruno Riendeau, director of safety and risk management; and our chief financial officer, Madam Patricia Jasmin.
At VIA Rail our mandate is to provide safe, efficient, reliable, and environmentally sustainable transportation services that meet the needs of Canadian travellers from coast to coast. That is the mandate that VIA Rail management, throughout the years, has provided itself and which governs its activities, as VIA does not have enabling legislation that sets out specifically its mandate, nor does the board or its CEO have a mandate from the government.
I've had the pleasure of serving as president and CEO of VIA Rail since May 2014. Since that time many steps have been taken to revitalize and refocus our service to Canadians, specifically to try to turn the tide on the increasing deficit, sinking ridership, and overall bad performance of the corporation.
In this regard, 2015 was a year of significant progress for VIA Rail. The corporation improved its services by focusing on customers and their needs. The shift toward customer-centricity led to simultaneous increases in ridership and revenue for the first time in many years. Including the month of June 2016, we will have experienced 18 months of straight growth in revenue month over month.
We will also experience three out of five quarters of increased ridership, increased revenue, and increased average revenue per customer, an achievement never realized in the 40-year history of VIA Rail. This significant accomplishment allowed us to reduce the subsidy provided by the Government of Canada for the first time by almost 12% as compared with last year in 2015.
The results are promising as we move forward to 2017, which not only will mark Canada's 150th anniversary, but more personally will mark VIA Rail's 40th anniversary.
Coupled with our ambitious plans to modernize the future of intercity passenger rail in Canada, which I'll talk about a little while later, we're very optimistic about the future of our crown corporation. That's why we're pleased to be here today to address the Auditor General's Special Examination Report and ensuing recommendations, with which we all agree.
First, I would like to formally thank the Auditor General's office for their co-operation throughout this process. Nobody likes to be audited, but if you're going to be audited you might as well be audited by the Auditor General of Canada—
Voices: Oh, oh!
Mr. Yves Desjardins-Siciliano: —because they do it with sensitivity.
We worked very closely with the Auditor General's office under the Financial Administration Act, on this special report, as we do every year on our annual report that is conducted by the Office of the Auditor General. The period covered by this report is November 2013 to September 2015, and therefore, over half of that period was not under my watch, but I assume full responsibility for its outcome.
We view this special examination as an opportunity to learn more about our strengths, as well as the areas in which we can continue to improve, as I said we do every year with the annual audit by the Auditor General. For example, we've implemented a detailed action plan for improving our SMS, our safety management system, and integrating it into our risk-management system.
VIA Rail's SMS provides the framework to implement our safety policy and to comply with the Railway Safety Act and safety management system regulations. At VIA, the objective when it comes to safety is not to meet regulatory requirements, but to exceed regulatory requirements for the better conduct of our business, and to enhance safety of our operations, our people, our passengers, and the public in general.
It is also the reference for setting goals, planning and measuring our safety performance. In 2015, VIA addressed the recommendations from Transport Canada's 2014 SMS audit, complied with revised new SMS regulations, and maintained and fostered strong participation by all employees, all ahead of the required timelines. In addition, we consulted with external experts to benchmark our SMS against leading practices within and outside the industry, in keeping with our commitment to go above and beyond compliance.
I'm happy to say that it is our view, and that of considered external experts, that VIA leads the way in state-of-the-art safety management systems for railways in Canada today.
We met the deadline of October 1, 2015, for compliance with the new federal legislation, and we've also taken measures to be able to demonstrate the effectiveness of this new system. In fact, I'm pleased to report that by the end of 2015 we completed an analysis of risks and vulnerabilities, and work is under way to implement mitigation measures by the end of 2016. We're also making significant progress on a number of other issues that were uncovered during the examination.
We've increased market discipline in our project management processes, which has resulted in more effective operations and increased revenues. We've put in place a governance structure to ensure better project management follow-up as VIA manages hundreds of projects every year, mainly capital projects, from infrastructure to train station updates and equipment modifications and renovations.
In 2015, we set up a centralized project office. This office has already helped to standardize estimates and measures for risks and benefits, a significant improvement from both a planning and a project management perspective. I'm happy to report that since then, many current projects, such as infrastructure bridge repairs and renovations to stations and other facilities, are forecast to come in on time and on budget.
One example that we are particularly proud of is our GPS train-tracking safety system, which was developed in-house and is a first in North America. The GPS tracking system assists locomotive engineers by providing notifications of upcoming speed changes or restrictions, approaching changes in applicable rules, and upcoming landmarks along the routes. VIA Rail has successfully completed the first live road test of its GPS train safety system in order to validate critical foundational system capabilities, accuracy, and precision of real-time GPS feed and track database in a real environment. This was a significant achievement, and further development and testing of the system are ongoing.
Furthermore, in 2015, we worked on completing the implementation of a new system containing information on profitability per train. Starting this year, VIA Rail will be able to incorporate such information into its decision-making and therefore increase its capability when it comes to managing its revenue.
Another area where we've made efficiency improvements is that of our employee scheduling tools, which are now entirely available online and which gives greater flexibility and convenience both to our employees and to management as we plan the schedules of our 2,600-person workforce.
We also have made improvements to our customer relationship management process, launched a new mobile application, and instituted SMS train status text messaging, all in an effort to address the needs and desires of the modern Canadian traveller.
With respect to the Auditor General's recommendations on long-term planning, we agree wholeheartedly that our operational effectiveness would be greatly enhanced through a timely multi-year approval of funding of our long-term plans. In fact, we have worked with Transport Canada toward this objective and obtained a multi-year funding envelope, which was three years long, ending in March 2017. We'll continue to work with Transport Canada and see if we can't come to a five-year plan, fully funded from both an operational and a capital requirement point of view.
Should no modification be made to VIA's current mandate, the funding needs will be $850 million in operating funding and $650 million in capital funding, for a yearly average of $300 million per year over the next five years. Moreover, we have begun working with the government to confirm VIA Rail's long-term strategy in order to reverse these trends of increased funding.
In 2015 we launched two different long-term strategic initiatives aimed at improving VIA Rail's services, ensuring long-term financial sustainability, and having the corporation's corporate plan approved by government in a timely manner.
The first initiative is to renew our equipment fleet for services in the densely populated and used Quebec City-Windsor corridor, where 90% of our riders and 90% of our revenue come from. Train operations are capital-intensive undertakings and take multiple years to plan and to build out, and ongoing maintenance is a high requirement. The rejuvenation of the fleet requires long-lead planning and long-term financial commitments.
As you may know, VIA Rail operates the oldest train sets in North America. The average age of our rolling stock is over 40 years. The average life expectancy of rolling stock typically is around 25 to 30 years. Thanks to several elements of funding over the last 15 years, VIA has refurbished that rolling fleet up to three times, but it's coming to end of life. By lengthening our planning horizons, we will be better able to assess and forecast our fleet renewal needs going forward.
The second long-term initiative we are working on is aimed at mitigating issues resulting from having to share tracks with freight trains. Notwithstanding the success we've seen in the past 18 months, we agree with the Auditor General's observation that congestion on shared tracks has made it difficult for VIA Rail to thrive alongside other passenger and commuter rail operators in Canada.
Our travellers expect a reliable service, with more frequent departures and competitive travel times. As we operate on dual usage tracks, with freight and passenger trains sharing a single rail network, our on-time performance has deteriorated proportionally with the freight industry's significant growth in recent years.
While we acknowledge the commercial industry's role as an important economic generator in several Canadian regions, for Canada's only intercity national passenger service, this has had proportional and negative impacts on VIA Rail's on-time performance.
As freight traffic increases, we battle multiplying rail maintenance issues and constant challenges to our business-critical targets. In addition, our travel times are longer today, on the eve of Canada's 150th anniversary, than they were in 1967, when the country celebrated its 100th anniversary.
To illustrate this point, when VIA Rail operates on its own tracks—of which we own close to 300 kilometres of tracks between Quebec and Ontario—our trains can operate at higher speeds and are on schedule 98% of the time. From our perspective, it is practically impossible for both passenger trains, which can travel up to 100 miles per hour, and freight carriers, which travel an average of 40 miles per hour, to share a single network.
That is why our management team developed a plan to build a railway infrastructure devoted to passenger train services, creating a new dedicated rail network, with the scope and route designation to be determined by the federal government and in the interest of future investors.
The first phase of this important project is intended to allow us to operate on our own tracks and thereby increase the frequency of our trains, reduce the travelling time, and offer a more reliable service. In concrete terms, this means tripling the number of daily departures between Quebec City–Montreal and Ottawa–Toronto, tripling ridership on those trains, and eliminating VIA Rail's annual operating deficit and reliance on the Government of Canada. This network could eventually extend to the current corridor all the way to Windsor.
The benefits of such an initiative are both economic and environmental, through anticipated job creation and labour productivity gains. The project's construction will generate more than 30,000 jobs and, through economic growth, give rise to more than 300,000 jobs across this vast region.
In addition, this plan would result in significant greenhouse gas reductions. We estimate it would eliminate five million car trips, thus lowering carbon emissions by more than 11 million tonnes within 30 years and eliminating more than 350,000 tonnes of greenhouse gases a year.
We also estimate that, in offering more modern services, our ridership will increase from just over two million to more than seven million passengers annually and, in turn, mean five million fewer cars on the road every year.
Our management team designed and planned this ambitious undertaking with the goal of finding permanent solutions that will put an end to recurring operating deficits and fickle ridership.
In addition, this plan would reduce VIA Rail's reliance on federal funding. We are encouraged by the support we have received through federal budget 2016 for this project and intend to submit a formal proposal to the government for this project later in the year.
For long-distance services in western and eastern Canada and in remote regions, we will continue our efforts with the track owners to improve on-time performance. In the current contractual context, though, and given the very different operational and financial frameworks of freight companies versus passenger rail service, possible improvements are limited at this time.
VIA Rail intends to initiate discussions with Transport Canada in order to identify possible alternatives to the current contractual framework where VIA does not have any leverage in negotiating with freight railway owners.
In closing, I'd like to thank the committee for offering this opportunity to highlight the ways in which VIA Rail is addressing the Auditor General's recommendations. I hope that as members of Parliament and as members of this committee, you feel better informed. I thank you for your continued support of our business, as many of you are riders on our trains, and your support as parliamentarians.
I'd be pleased to take questions, and if I can't answer them, I have my colleagues to chip in.
Thank you.
View Joël Godin Profile
CPC (QC)
Thank you, Mr. Chair.
Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for joining us this morning. Your being here today helps us have confidence in VIA Rail. As you no doubt know, our job as members of this parliamentary committee is to ensure the best possible investment and use of taxpayers' money.
With that in mind, I want to read you an excerpt from the Auditor General's report.
…VIA has received from the government only short-term approval of its funding and five-year corporate plan, and often late in the Corporation's fiscal year. In this context, VIA could not fulfil its mandate as economically, efficiently, and effectively as desired. The significant deficiency could also compromise the Corporation's medium- and long-term viability.
I want to focus on that last statement, “The significant deficiency could also compromise the Corporation's medium- and long-term viability.”
Our duty, as parliamentarians, is to ask tough questions. We are responsible for taxpayers' money, and you have a mandate to carry out. And now we have this report from the Auditor General.
Mr. Desjardins-Siciliano, granted, you are new to the job and you have implemented measures, but do you think the existing measures, in addition to the ones your team will introduce and put in place, are enough to ensure VIA Rail's medium- and long-term viability?
Yves Desjardins-Siciliano
View Yves Desjardins-Siciliano Profile
Yves Desjardins-Siciliano
2016-06-16 9:18
Thank you for the question.
The arrival of the new government and it's March budget really give us reason to be hopeful. In a very short amount of time, the new government, as well as the new minister, did their homework and learned all about VIA Rail's situation.
First, the government released funding for fleet renewal. We are in the process of completing the legwork so the government can make a decision on new equipment funding for the corridor as early as this fall or, later, as part of its 2017 budget. That's extremely positive news for VIA Rail.
Second, the government, in the same budget, talks about modernizing VIA Rail and calls the proposal for a high-frequency rail service perhaps the only way for the corporation to improve its relevance, on-time performance, and ridership, while reducing its deficit.
We welcome this public policy, one that recognizes our corporation's need to upgrade and renew our fleet. The fact remains, however, that bureaucratic processes are cumbersome. The Auditor General's finding reflects that reality. Even though the government decided to allocate infrastructure funding in its budget to VIA Rail, the approval mechanism involving Parliament and Treasury Board enters into the equation. As a result, VIA Rail is often unable to access the funding until months later and, in some cases, not until the end of the year in which it was allocated. What's more, the funding usually has to be used by a certain deadline. In our industry, though, the construction season is limited to summer, as far as infrastructure is concerned. I'll give you a good example to illustrate that.
Two years ago, the Government of Canada announced $102 million in funding for VIA Rail infrastructure between Montreal and Ottawa, in other words, the Coteau segment, in Quebec, on the Ottawa-bound portion. The announcement came in November, but the funds weren't released until mid-July of the following year. It was then too late to start the work because of the tendering process: the requests for proposals had to be posted for 43 days and the suppliers had to be chosen. That took us to October or November, just before winter. Construction work got under way the following year, but the funding decision announced in November was valid for only two years. When we were finally able to access the money and start construction, we had just 12 months until the funding expired.
That's the kind of red tape that prevents things from running smoothly. If the mechanism allowed for long-term planning and five-year funding, it wouldn't matter if we lost six months or a year going through the administrative steps because we would still have enough time to plan and carry out the work.
North America is experiencing a railway revival, but procurement remains a barrier. Whether we're dealing with steel for the track, signalling systems, or rolling stock, the procurement process can take as long as six, 12, or 18 months, given all the railway construction going on right now in North America, particularly in terms of passenger trains.
In order to cope with the red tape—which won't go away overnight—we need long-term planning. It's also important to ensure that projects are fully deployed.
Over the past 10 years, many of VIA Rail's infrastructure projects have suffered because of a lack of foresight. Projects that had gotten under way would be disrupted because the funding had expired. We would end up with these small segments—
View Joël Godin Profile
CPC (QC)
Okay.
It's not VIA's role, but as members of Parliament, how can we ensure services are provided to that population?
You are an integral part of the problem and solution. I am thinking out loud. I don't know whether you or the officials from the Office of the Auditor General can answer me. I'm not sure whether I'll be able to get a full answer. Do you have possible solutions for this type of situation?
I mentioned the Gaspé, but the problem also exists in western and northern Canada. The government is responsible for ensuring that one of its service providers, in this case VIA Rail, fulfills its mandate. How can this be resolved?
Yves Desjardins-Siciliano
View Yves Desjardins-Siciliano Profile
Yves Desjardins-Siciliano
2016-06-16 9:42
For over 12 years, Canadian infrastructure has often been funded at the municipal, provincial, and federal levels. Each of the three levels of government must establish its list of priorities and include the project. My understanding is that, if there's no funding for infrastructure upgrades in the Gaspé, the reason is that the local authorities in Gaspésie, the provincial authorities in Quebec City, and the federal authorities have not included it in their list of priorities. Funding decisions are made by those three stakeholders together. Once the infrastructure has been funded and restored, we must conduct a safety check, and once it is safe, we then use it as needed. That's my understanding of how the infrastructure is funded.
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