Interventions in Committee
 
 
 
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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
View Bob Hamilton Profile
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
View Bob Hamilton Profile
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
View Bob Hamilton Profile
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
View Bob Hamilton Profile
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
View Bob Hamilton Profile
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
View Bob Hamilton Profile
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
View Bob Hamilton Profile
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
View Bob Hamilton Profile
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.
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