Revenue Canada's letters full of gobbledegook, internal report finds

A new study for the Canada Revenue Agency gives a failing grade to the millions of letters sent to taxpayers each year, calling them "confusing" and "dense." The agency agrees, promising to clean up its act starting next February.

Tax notices are so confusing, recipients are often not sure whether they owe money, study finds

Revenue Canada's letters are gobbledegook

8 years ago
Duration 3:00
Tax notices are so confusing, recipients are often unsure whether they owe money: CRA internal report

The next time you puzzle over an indecipherable letter or notice from the Canada Revenue Agency, don't blame yourself: even the tax department acknowledges it churns out a lot of gobbledegook.

A study of the agency last month confirms the millions of communications that bureaucrats send to taxpayers each year are poorly organized, confusing, unprofessional, unduly severe, bureaucratic, one-sided and just plain dense.

All that gibberish comes with a human cost: confused taxpayers swamp the agency's call centres with needless telephone inquiries, or they send thousands of letters to tax offices asking for clarification.

And Canadians who receive government benefit cheques sometimes get cut off without cause because they don't understand the unintelligible letters the agency sends to them asking for information.

The findings appear in an internal evaluation of the 130 million pieces of mail that tax officials issue each year to businesses, charitable groups and individual taxpayers, virtually all of it through Canada Post rather than electronically.

A New York-based consultant firm hired to examine a cross-section of CRA's letters found the "information was not well organized, (the) presentation of information did not inspire confidence; and (the) tone used lacked empathy."

"Often the main purpose of the documents was not readily apparent, and other important information was scattered throughout the document or embedded in dense paragraphs," Siegelvision said in its $25,000 review for the government.

Misunderstood letters

The evaluation included an online survey of taxpayers by another firm, which asked respondents to examine a typical CRA notice that required the recipient to send the tax agency money. About half of those surveyed could not figure out they were supposed to write a cheque to the government because the document was so poorly written.

Worse, many of those surveyed claimed they understood the sample document when in fact they did not, says the $90,000 survey from TNS Canada Ltd.

Participants ... often do not understand much of the information expressed in the letters they receive- Consultant report for Canada Revenue Agency

Separate work commissioned from the Walker Consulting Group in 2012-2013 found that taxpayers they interviewed considered the letters and notices to be full of gibberish.

"Participants indicated that they often do not understand much of the information expressed in the letters they receive," said the Walker report.

"Many indicated a degree of frustration about not understanding various pieces of information contained in letters from the CRA."

The Siegelvision study also compared the CRA's standard communications with those of the Internal Revenue Service in the United States, which in July 2008 began a major initiative to improve the clarity and accuracy of its correspondence.

American versions clearly indicated that the taxpayer owed the government money, while the CRA equivalents were confusing, with long preambles and weak presentation. The agency's correspondence also compared poorly with tax letters and notices in Australia, Britain and the province of Quebec.

The evaluation blames the problem partly on older letter-generating software at the CRA that offers bureaucrats little flexibility in customizing or improving their communications.

The agency said it accepts the findings, and plans to consult businesses this fall to find ways to improve clarity, as part of a "red-tape reduction" initiative.

Looking for feedback

"The CRA will also engage Canadians to solicit their feedback on how to improve our correspondence with them," beginning next year, spokesman Philippe Brideau said.

The Canada Revenue Agency says it plans to boost the clarity of its communications as part of a new initiative starting in February next year. (Kady O'Malley/CBC )

The agency plans a new service in February that will allow individuals to receive correspondence online, and will use the opportunity to improve clarity, Brideau said. Businesses have been offered a similar secure email service since 2013.

"Over the next 18 months, the most common letters and notices that the CRA generates, constituting more than 60 million pieces of correspondence a year, will be available online to Canadians in simplified, easier-to-understand formats," Brideau said in an email.

Officials also plan to hire a third-party consultant to help rewrite the templates for standard correspondence.

A senior executive at Siegelvision, the New York firm hired by CRA to conduct the review, declined to discuss its work for the agency, but said any organization needs to adopt a "blank slate" approach to communications rather than try to improve them incrementally or piecemeal.

Irene Etzkorn, the company's chief clarity officer, also said an organization needs a "high-level executive champion to overcome a lot of bureaucratic inertia."

Follow @DeanBeeby on Twitter


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