House Call with Carol Hughes

Auditor General confirms what Canadians already know about government call centres

When the Auditor General files a report, it’s rarely good news for the government. That was the case this week when the watchdog’s office reported about the ongoing problems within government call centres for departments that people rely on: Employment and Social Development; Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship; and Veterans Affairs. While Canadians might reasonably expect their calls would provide them with accessible and timely services, that wasn’t the case for over half the calls these departments received last year.

That amounts to over eight million Canadians who were unable to talk to a real person at these call centres. The problem isn’t particularly new, either. Last year, the Auditor General called out the Canada Revenue Agency for poor management of its call centres. This new report confirms that the problem is more wide-spread and the CRA is not the only department hanging up on people.

Whether Canadians are phoning about their employment insurance, pensions or immigration matters, too many are finding call centres to be a dead end. Couple this with the reduced presence of Service Canada centres across the country (especially in rural and Northern locations) and it’s easy to see how Canadians are not receiving the service they need. This also helps explain the sharp uptick in people seeking help from MP offices.

The report found that millions of callers had difficulty getting through to agents and had their calls sent back to the automated system, or were told to call back later, or go to a website for assistance, instead of being given the option of waiting to speak with an agent. This was the case at Employment and Social Development call centres for Employment Insurance and for the Canada Pension Plan and Old Age Security, as well as the call centre at Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. For those lucky enough to get through to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada the wait time to speak to an agent was 30 minutes or longer.

One departmental exception was the call centre at Veterans Affairs Canada which did allow all people to wait for an agent, but the problem then became wait times. Those were so significant that over a million callers who began the process hung up before ever speaking to someone.

The Auditor General also found that call centres didn’t focus on the needs of individuals seeking assistance when they determined what their service standard services will be. He used Veterans Affairs as an example. That department stopped providing tele-typewriter services for the deaf and hard of hearing with no consultation or communication with veterans ahead of time. On top of that no call centre had standards related to the chance that callers would speak to an agent or receive accurate information.

It’s been five years since the government started a process to modernize and improve its call centres. Any problems have only been magnified by Service Canada cuts. Canadians count on these centres to help them in many ways which often have pressing financial implications. The Auditor General’s report may just be the tip of the iceberg since there are 213 call centres that haven’t been audited and only eight that have.

In the meantime, Canadians are frustrated and have now received confirmation that their calls, whether it is about their EI, pensions or immigration matters, are reaching a dead end at government call centres. The solution isn’t all that complicated, the government just has to find a way to answer the phone.