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‘Most’ problems with CRA call centres highlighted in devastating 2017 audit still exist: taxpayers’ watchdog


‘It’s still not a good service, and so CRA needs to properly reflect on how they deliver this,’ Taxpayers’ Ombudsperson François Boileau said

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OTTAWA — Four years after a devastating auditor general report detailing serious issues with the Canada Revenue Agency’s call centre service, the taxpayers’ ombudsperson says that “most” of those problems still exist despite millions of dollars of investments to improve the service.

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“I’ve read the (auditor general) report in 2017 and I’ve seen that most of the issues are still there. Because we do receive many complaints with regards to call centres,” Taxpayers’ Ombudsperson François Boileau said after tabling his latest annual report.

“It’s still not a good service, and so CRA needs to properly reflect on how they deliver this,” he added. “When you have to call a CRA agent, you brace yourself and you hope for the best. And it shouldn’t be that way.”

Par for the course, Boileau says the CRA’s contact centres remained in the top five category of issues that taxpayers complained about to his office in 2020-2021. So much so that he is considering opening a systemic examination into the matter.

In a statement, the agency said that it is aware that call centres are not meeting many Canadians’ expectations and that it is working to address their concerns.

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CRA spokesperson Etienne Biram revealed that the agency is looking into the feasibility of a “scheduled callback” function that would allow taxpayers to choose a date and time for the agency to call, something Boileau called for in his annual report. He also noted that its looking into an online chat function on the agency’s website as an alternative to calling.

If implemented, those services would compliment the agency’s new, “modern” phone system that they say “virtually eliminates” busy signals, shares estimated wait times and features a new self-service system and more advanced routing capabilities.

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Back in 2017, Auditor General Michael Ferguson revealed that the agency’s call centres blocked half the calls they received in order to say it met its service standard for wait times, that taxpayers were given wrong information by agents 30 per cent of the time and that a whopping 64 per cent of calls ultimately went “unanswered.”

At the time, National Revenue Minister Diane Lebouthillier said the government had committed $50 million to improve the call centre’s services and telephone systems, and that the difference should be noticeable beginning in 2018.

But years later, Boileau says people are still waiting hours to reach an agent, calls are still dropping unexpectedly after hours on hold and people are still generally frustrated that they can’t simply schedule a callback with CRA.

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The pandemic did not make life easier for call centre employees, since it received double the usual number of calls in 2020-2021 (40 million) in large part due to questions about COVID-19 financial aid benefits.

“Currently the CRA publicizes its wait times online, and actively encourages Canadians on its social media to keep calling, but it does not tell Canadians its queues are full and does not provide wait times for its second level agents on the Contact the Canada Revenue Agency webpage,” Boileau’s report details.

“You then call, prepared for a wait, only to be told the queue is full. Or you call, reach an agent, then get put in another queue with an unexpected wait, and hear estimated wait time messaging once you are on hold in the queue,” he continued.

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One of the five recommendations the ombudsman proposed in his report is for the agency to create a callback system where taxpayers can plug in their phone number and receive a call back from the CRA instead of waiting in a queue for hours.

“A simple solution would be the callback feature. I’ve been told it’s difficult … but why not try to have something more general so that people would stop wasting their time when calling,” he said.

In fact, CRA already has a callback system, Boileau noted, but it is only available to those who owe money to the agency and are trying to get hold of the collections service.

Boileau also says the CRA’s communication issues are much larger than just the call centre and that the agency must do much better in nearly all ways that it communicates with Canadians.

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For example, his report recommends that: the agency do more to inform Canadians of its three-step service complaint process, that all unclassified information held by call centre agents also be available online to all Canadians, that the CRA develop better tools for people to securely submit documents electronically, and that the agency provide a link on its home page referring to the Ombudsman’s office.

“My recommendations may sometimes sound simple and be based on common sense. That’s the point. They all have one thing in common: improving the CRA’s communication in all its forms,” Boileau said.

Last year, his office received a record number of inquiries, complaints, appeals and requests for review from Canadians, and it sent 132 per cent more urgent requests (760) to the CRA than usual.

Another incident his office is looking into is when the CRA unexpectedly locked 180,000 users out of their online CRA account in February with no notice due to fears of compromised login credentials.

“Regaining access to a CRA account has been an ongoing issue for many Canadians,” Boileau’s report states.

• Email: cnardi@postmedia.com | Twitter:

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