Service Canada quietly embraces delivering services digitally during COVID-19 pandemic

With physical outlets closed, and many Canadians seeking help from Ottawa due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Service Canada appears to have launched digital assistants to handle the crush. But no one at the agency seems to be talking about it.

Online intake form and chatbot appears on website with little fanfare

A Service Canada location on Kipling Avenue in Toronto is one of hundreds across the country that have closed to the public amid the COVID-19 outbreak. (Christopher Mulligan/CBC)

After the novel coronavirus forced Service Canada centres to close across the country last month, many Canadians reported long wait times as millions called to access government services they suddenly needed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But now, a government department notoriously slow to embrace the digital age appears to be turning to online solutions to deal with the backlog.

When Employment and Social Development Canada announced the closure of 318 locations, call centres were left to deal with Canadians who needed services like EI and the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB).  And while staff were added to help answer those calls, that hasn't been much help to people like Adriano Paonessa.

"If you are lucky enough to get through, they say that there's no guarantee your call will be transferred and very often it'll just hang up. It's literally impossible to get a hold of a person," said Paonessa, who's been trying to contact Service Canada for two weeks. 

Paonessa, a singer/songwriter from Hamilton whose stage name is Dre Pao, says friends and family haven't had a paycheque for six weeks and they want to check on their applications for the CERB.

Adriano Paonessa has been trying to get through to Service Canada on the phone for the past two weeks. (submitted)

"How can you not be expecting this amount of Canadians needing help? It's just shocking to me."

Now, Service Canada has quietly added new online options that may speed up response times.

An online intake tool has popped up on the Service Canada website. The tool includes a request form for someone to call you back. There's also a virtual assistant that will chat with you and begin COVID-19-related requests.

The Service Canada website now has a service request form and a chatbot tasked with answering COVID-19 related questions. (CBC)

Ryan Androsoff teaches digital leadership at the Institute on Governance, a not-for-profit public interest insitutiion in Ottawa.

He says the public service has been forced to catch up with the private sector, which has been using such digital tools for customer service and client relationship management for quite some time.

"This is mirroring a lot of what we're seeing in the private sector ... everything from education to grocery shopping. Government has been working for many years to move its service delivery into the digital era."

Androsoff says this pandemic has forced the public service to catch up with the private sector overnight.

Service Canada's COVID-19 virtual assistant can begin the intake process for people looking to apply for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit. (CBC)

"Not only is this increasing citizens' demands for digital service delivery, it's actually forcing public servants themselves to work digitally in a way that they've never had to before," he told CBC News.

But not all departments have risen to the occasion, says Androsoff. While the Canada Revenue Agency has had more experience delivering services online, other departments haven't been as tech savvy.

Some people have reported problems trying to access Service Canada's portal and so far there has been no response from the government department to CBC Toronto's request for comment.

Ryan Androsoff teaches digital leadership at Institute on Governance, an independent, not-for-profit public interest institution. He says the COVID-19 pandemic has forced the public service to catch up with the private sector overnight. (submitted)

Still, Androsoff says while there will be bugs to work out, for the public service the genie is out of the bottle.

"I suspect that when this immediate crisis passes, there's going to be continuing demand for more digital services now the people have a sense of what's in the realm of the possible."


Philip Lee-Shanok

Senior Reporter, CBC Toronto

From small town Ontario to Washington D.C., Philip has covered stories big and small. An award-winning reporter with more than two decades of experience in Ontario and Alberta, he's now a Senior Reporter for CBC Toronto on television, radio and online. He is also a National Reporter for The World This Weekend on Radio One. Follow him on Twitter @CBCPLS.


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