Canada Revenue Agency's promised fix for call centre complaints has hit a snag

A year after the release of a scathing auditor general's report on problems at Canada Revenue Agency's call centres, the agency's promised new phone system is being delayed — and critics are warning that, even when it's up and running, it won't be the silver bullet the government is promising.

Critics, meanwhile, suggest it won't be enough to address the auditor general's complaints

The Canada Revenue Agency's promised new call centre platform is being delayed, a year after an auditor-general's report took the agency to task over how it handles phone queries from taxpayers. (Africa Studio/Shutterstock)

A year after the release of a scathing auditor general's report on problems at Canada Revenue Agency's call centres, the agency's promised new phone system has been delayed — and critics are warning that, even when it's up and running, it won't be the silver bullet the government is promising.

The CRA's business enquiries line was finally moved over to a new telephone platform last week, more than seven months after the date originally promised. But the general enquiries and debt management lines have not been switched over yet.

"Though the implementation of the new call centre platform has taken more time than expected to ensure a seamless transition, I am pleased that the migration of the business enquiries line has been successful," said National Revenue Minister Diane Lebouthillier in an email to CBC News.

"I am looking forward to the platform's full implementation across the CRA's call centres."

Last fall's auditor general report found dismal service standards at the CRA's nine call centres across the country, with the agency answering only 36 per cent of all incoming calls and providing incorrect answers to callers nearly a third of the time.

The audit found the CRA blocked more than half of the 53.5 million incoming calls during the audit period — which meant callers either heard a busy signal or a message to try back later.

It found that the agency's internal assessment of its response rate to calls, and the accuracy of the information agents provided, grossly overstated the agency's success in meeting its service standards.

National Revenue Minister Diane Lebouthillier promised a new telephone system for tax inquiries after the federal auditor general found Canadians were getting busy signals - and bad advice - from Canada Revenue Agency call centres. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

At the time, the CRA accepted all of the audit's recommendations, pinning much of its promised improvements on moving to a new, more modern telephone platform that will direct calls to available agents, no matter where they are in the CRA's network of call centres.

The new system will be able to give callers an estimate of how long they'll have to wait to talk to a human being, allowing them to decide whether they want to stay on hold.

Such a platform can allow for the use of voice, web chat, email, social media and videoconferencing, in addition to automated self-service options — although a CRA official clarified later that the agency might not end up using all these options, due to privacy concerns.

The contract for the phone platform was awarded to IBM. The project, called the Hosted Contact Centre Service (HCCS), is being overseen by Shared Services Canada, the federal government's IT department.

Delays a concern: MP

Originally, the agency promised the new system's rollout would begin in March 2018, with the project completed by the end of this year, but the business line was only moved to the new system Nov. 11. The goal now is to have the general enquiries line, also known as the individual line, operating on the new system in time for tax-filing season.

Critics worry about whether that will happen.

"We really aren't that very far from the next tax season, if that's part of what they're targeting to have this fully functional for Canadians," said Conservative national revenue critic Pat Kelly, adding he is concerned about further delays. "It may mean we're going to have a lot of frustrated Canadians."

Minutes from a joint CRA-Union of Taxation Employees technological change subcommittee in May 2018 indicate that challenges related to bandwidth, queue capacity, accessibility and language issues contributed to the delays.

But those minutes also show the federal government seems to be learning its lesson from the Phoenix pay system debacle: it's far better to test a new system successfully before rolling it out.

"This project was considered high risk and management would not proceed if there were doubts about the functionality of HCCS," the subcommittee minutes say.

Auditor General Michael Ferguson took the CRA to task for its outmoded telephone inquiries service in his 2017 fall report a year ago. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Still, the delays mean millions of Canadians are still struggling to get through on the phone.

"What I have heard, by anecdote, especially from tax preparers who deal with it consistently, is that things are not significantly better," said Kelly.

Privacy a challenge

Experts say the best call centre phone systems are ones that don't force callers to give their information over and over to different agents as they are routed through the system. For the CRA — where privacy concerns mean different departments often don't share information — meeting that standard might prove to be a challenge.

"Good data lead to good insights," said Zeus Kerravala, principle analyst at ZK Research in Westminster, MA, where he covers communications and network technology. "And so, if the data [are] siloed ... you can spend all the money on new technology but it's not really going to improve things."

While the new system promises the addition of web chat and email, Kerravala warned that many people will still want to talk to an actual person at the other end of the line — and that includes younger, more tech-savvy taxpayers.

"The one thing that I've learned over the years is that when people want to talk about money, they want to talk to somebody," he said. The more complex the taxation issue, he added, the more a caller will want to talk to an agent.

The CRA says that while the delays are unfortunate, it has made other improvements to its services, including hiring additional call centre agents and expanding the number of self-serve options available through the automated telephone service and online.

And to address another problem identified by the auditor general, the agency has extended its wait times in the phone queues from two to five minutes, which the audit said would reduce the number of callers getting a busy signal or a message to call back later.

Canadians continue to complain about getting inconsistent information from different call centre agents.

Accuracy improves slightly

In response to the auditor general's finding that agents were giving incorrect information at least one third of the time, the CRA promised more and better training and the creation of a national quality assurance team.

The agency conducted a self-assessment during a two-week period last February and found the accuracy rate had improved, but only slightly — to 78 per cent.

"I would think any organization should find that utterly and completely unacceptable," said Kelly, who also said it's hard to trust those numbers considering the auditor general also found the CRA was wildly off on its previous self-assessments.

"There's going to be a credibility problem for a while."

Kelly said he has also heard from CRA employees who fear they're being evaluated mainly on how fast they can process a call.

"The goal of the agency and the call centre should be to help Canadians get the information that they need," said Kelly. "It may take longer, but if a person doesn't get the information they need, they will have to call back. And so you're not really shortening the queue, either."

Conservative MP Pat Kelly says he is concerned the CRA won't have an improved service in place for tax filing season. (Christian Diotte/House of Commons)

After all three enquiries lines have successfully been switched over, the new phone system will be able to record calls to assess their accuracy, according to the agency.

Lebouthillier said she is committed to improving access to call centre agents and improving the information they provide. She points to her appointment of a 'chief service officer' as a major move to help the CRA become more client-focused.

Meanwhile, the agency is facing another audit, due to land Tuesday, that will be part of the auditor general's 2018 fall report. That report will look at whether the CRA applied the Income Tax Act consistently during compliance activities, and whether it accurately reported the results of those activities.


Karina Roman

Senior Reporter, Parliamentary Bureau

Karina Roman joined CBC's parliamentary bureau in 2008. She can be reached on email karina.roman@cbc.ca or on Twitter @karinaroman1