OTTAWA — Half of the 16 million Canadians trying to reach one of three government agencies by telephone are unable to speak to live humans, according to Canada's interim auditor general.
In a new report released in Ottawa today, Sylvain Ricard says callers are facing too many barriers when trying to call the government for services or information.
Ricard's office audited call centres at three departments that receive a lot of telephone calls: the Immigration Department, Employment and Social Development Canada and Veterans Affairs.
"Overall, we found that getting through to government call centres took time and persistence," the audit report says. "In fact, we found that half of the 16 million Canadians who tried to speak to an agent could not do so."
Seven million callers were sent to an automated system or were told to go to a website or to call back later.
"This audit is important because call centres are a key source of government information," Ricard says in the report.
"Callers make millions of calls to the government every year to get the information they need to make time-sensitive, important decisions. For example, they may be calling to ensure that they receive benefits on time or to find out the status of an application."
Callers to the Immigration Department face the longest wait times: 30 minutes or longer to speak with an agent. One key problem is that the Immigration call centre does not have targets for how long callers should have to wait. A decision by the previous Conservative government to close a number of in-person client offices across Canada in 2012 contributed to the longer wait times, the audit found.
At Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC), which manages employment-insurance claims, the Canada Pension Plan and old-age security benefits, callers are sent to an automated system when call volumes exceed a certain threshold.
In its response to the findings, ESDC noted its ability to manage and improve access to call-centre agents is limited by existing technology and funding.
Veterans Affairs Canada's call centre allows all callers to wait in a queue to speak with an agent. However, the audit found the department stopped offering a teletypewriter (TTY) service for people with impaired hearing without telling veterans. No documentation was found to justify this decision.
For all three departments, more than a million callers who did make it into a queue for an agent eventually gave up on waiting and hung up.
And the auditor general says the situation is unlikely to improve any time soon.
A government strategy to modernize client services adopted in 2017 did not include call centres, even though more than 25 per cent of Canadians use the telephone to contact government. The strategy prioritized providing services online.
In addition, a call-centre modernization project by Shared Services Canada that has taken five years to get off the ground has managed to upgrade only eight of the government's 221 call centres and has no plan for the remaining 213.
"While these call centres wait for modern technology, they face the risk of aging hardware breaking down and software no longer being supported," the AG report says.
All government agencies have accepted the auditor's findings and say they are taking steps to improve service delivery.
The Immigration Department hired additional call-centre agents in 2018 and is developing strategies to increase access. ESDC says it will review operations once it has been migrated to a new telephone system — a move planned to be completed in 2020. Veterans Affairs said it would extend its TTY services to include all calls handled by its national contact centre.
Shared Services Canada says it has realized that "one size does not fit all" when it comes to its modernization strategy and has begun to reassess the plan to determine the best solutions for call centres in need of upgrades. It is to present an updated plan to Treasury Board this year.
Teresa Wright, The Canadian Press