One of every four business callers who ask for tax help from the Canada Revenue Agency’s call centres gets bad information, an internal survey suggests.

The dismal finding is worse than previous estimates by the agency, and confirms repeated complaints by a small-business group that the call centres are routinely dispensing misleading — and perhaps legally dubious — answers.

The latest survey, specially ordered by the head of the tax organization, tested call-centre workers by asking seven routine questions, phoned in anonymously and randomly by 11 agency employees.

The overall accuracy rate was 75 per cent, though the agency later decided to exclude the answers to one of the questions because so few call-centre workers got it right.

By removing that so-called “outlier,” the agency managed to boost its accuracy rate to 83 per cent. Even that number was far below a previous agency claim that the call centres gave “fully correct” answers 92.5 per cent of the time, based on a large sample from 2013-14.

Findings a vindication for CFIB

The March 2014 internal report and related documents were obtained by CBC News under an access to information request.

The findings are a vindication for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, which in 2010 and 2012 conducted its own testing and determined that call-centre employees were providing wrong or incomplete answers 19 per cent of the time. Their own survey in 2012 involved 145 calls using four standard questions.

Corinne Pohlmann, the federation’s senior vice-president, said her group gets a lot of complaints from members about the tax agency’s inadequate responses and wanted to test it directly.

She said the rate of wrong answers is “way too high,” noting that some businesses act on the bad advice and then face a gruelling audit.

'They are penalized for trying to do the right thing' — Canadian Federation of Independent Business

“Now suddenly they are penalized for trying to do the right thing,” she said in Ottawa.

A spokesman for the Canada Revenue Agency said the internal survey was ordered by the commissioner, Andrew Treusch, in direct response to the critical business federation report from 2012.

Philippe Brideau added that differing accuracy levels are the result of varied methodologies and assumptions. The agency is working now to establish a “calibration framework to ensure … consistency,” says a Sept. 16 memo to Treusch.

Pohlmann said some accounting firms routinely ask the same tax question of different call-centre workers, and use the most common response, rather than take a chance with a single inquiry that may result in bad advice.

Agency to improve training

The Canada Revenue Agency receives about 3.3 million calls each year at its three business call centres in Saint John, Toronto and Edmonton. About 645 people are employed answering business inquiries.

The latest internal survey did not test the accuracy of responses at the six separate call centres devoted to inquiries from individual taxpayers. The 2,700 workers at those centres receive about 14 million calls each year, and the Canada Revenue Agency says responses are accurate about 94 per cent of the time.

But the dubious methodology used to test for accuracy is the same as that originally applied to the business call centres, which initially produced the 92.5 per cent accuracy rating, later revised sharply downward based on the commissioner's special survey.

The agency does not publish accuracy standards for its call centres, but says it expects 85 per cent of all callers, individual and business, to be able to get through to its telephone service, and says it slightly exceeded that target in 2013-14.

The CFIB says its own survey showed 20 per cent of its test callers could not get through at all in 2012. The latest internal tax agency survey says only 56 per cent of test callers got through on the first attempt; the remainder had to call an average of almost three times before getting through, some of them more than 14 times.

The agency says it is improving training for the call-centre workers, who now are obliged to provide their agent identification number to callers at the outset. Brideau also says the automated interactive voice response system has been improved.

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