The report, released Tuesday, found that the Canada Revenue Agency blocks more than half of the calls to its nine call centres because it can’t handle the volume. People whose calls are blocked hear a busy signal or a message to visit the website or call back later.
Calls got blocked, said the auditor general, partly because the call centres have a policy of not letting people wait more than two minutes to talk to someone: it was easier to meet that target by blocking a call than by letting people wait in the queue.
WATCH: Auditor general says CRA 30% error rate ‘very concerning’
Between March 2016 and March 2017, the Canada Revenue Agency only answered about 36 per cent of the 53.5 million calls it received – 32 per cent were put through to a live agent, and four per cent were sent to an automated system.
On average, callers made three or four calls in a week in order to get through, and even then they weren’t always successful.
But even when callers are able to talk to a Canada Revenue Agency employee to get answers to their tax questions, those answers aren’t always right.
The auditor general’s team found that call centre agents gave inaccurate information 29 per cent of the time – something that could lead to people and businesses filing their taxes incorrectly, which could mean penalties or not receiving benefits they’re entitled to.
“Obviously a 30 per cent error rate is very concerning, particularly because the questions we were asking were of a general nature,” said Auditor General Michael Ferguson in a press conference Tuesday morning.
“I think we just have to assume that people are getting wrong answers and sometimes they are filling out their tax returns based on that information.”
To find this out, auditor general staff made 255 calls and asked standard questions that have been used by the CRA or other external auditors to assess information quality. The auditor general found that questions about filing personal taxes got a particularly high error rate – 36 per cent.
WATCH: An auditor general report found that the Canadian Revenue Agency may have given incorrect advice to Canadians calling with questions over the phone.
“Our clients have a right to receive information that is clear and precise, when they need it,” said National Revenue Minister Diane Lebouthillier in a statement. “We have made strides to improve our service over the last two years by hiring more agents, increasing self-serve options, and implementing measures to allow our clients to reach our agents more readily.”
There is still work to be done, she said.
The auditor general’s findings were in line with other external audits of the call centres’ information quality – though the CRA’s own assessments are much more positive.
Similarly, the auditor general found that the CRA overstated how many calls it was able to answer. The CRA claimed that 90 per cent of calls are directed to an agent or to the automated help system, according to the report, but this doesn’t take into account all the calls that get blocked.
“The Agency considered that a caller had 100 per cent access to call centre services even if the caller had to try four times, experiencing three blocked calls before getting through,” read the report.
Canada blocks far more calls than the U.S., the U.K. and Australia, according to the auditor general, and other countries include blocked calls in their overall assessments of their system.
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In its response to the auditor general’s findings, the CRA said that their aging call centre technology does not allow them to automatically route calls to the next available agent across its national network.
“As a result, the Agency manages the number of callers who can access its phone queues at each site. By limiting the number of callers who join the queue, the Agency can maintain reasonable wait times for those in the queue.”
The CRA will be moving to a new call system in 2018, it said, and the new system will be able to inform callers of estimated wait times.
“Beginning in 2018, our clients will see numerous improvements when we implement a new telephone platform in our call centres,” said Lebouthillier. “This platform will connect Canadians with agents more efficiently and will inform callers of current wait times. Additionally, a new, national quality control team will be put in place to improve agent tools and training.”
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said he was concerned that Canadians were receiving incorrect tax information from the government and it was potentially a disaster for families who filled out their tax forms based on bad advice.
“It’s bad enough when they get bad advice from people in the private sector, tax planners or accountants,” he told reporters Tuesday. “But this is the government itself. These are government officials themselves telling a taxpayer, telling a hardworking Canadian how to properly proceed. And when that’s wrong and they suffer because of it and they have to pay penalties and go through all that heartache, that is just unacceptable.”
The CRA plans to re-examine its service standards and ask Canadians about what acceptable wait times would be – something that the auditor general said they should have done already.
“There may be some people who would rather wait a few more minutes to connect rather than be blocked and have to call back again,” said Ferguson.
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