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Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Labour Patty Hajdu speaks with Lori Sterling, deputy minister of Labour and associate deputy minister of Employment and Social Development, as they appear at a Commons human resources committee hearing on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday, Feb. 12, 2018. Federal officials overseeing billions in benefit payments to millions of Canadians are hoping machine learning tools can solve ongoing snags in the system.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

Federal officials overseeing billions in benefit payments to millions of Canadians are hoping artificial intelligence can resolve ongoing snags in the system.

The government is looking to “push the boundaries” of what artificial intelligence can do to improve a variety of services, including the pace of benefit decisions to Canadians applying for disability pensions, say documents obtained by The Canadian Press under the access to information law.

Employment and Social Development Canada is currently facing processes that are “slow, inefficient, inconsistent, and prone to error,” reads a presentation about the AI efforts.

Instead of being able to proactively change the way federal services are delivered to Canadians, the documents say, officials are bogged down with millions of “low value” issues that need to be taken care of, crowding out more critical work.

Among the “low value” work are about 50,000 tasks required to issue tax forms to Canada Pension Plan and old age security recipients.

Machine learning could also eliminate the need to have staff review hundreds of public consultation submissions to find key issues and themes.

One of the first small-scale projects to test this new approach for the department – and to demonstrate its future potential for other services – is a predictive analytics program launched this spring to triage CPP disability applications and speed up benefit decisions.

The Liberals are overseeing changes to the CPP disability program stemming from a critical auditor general review that questioned the length and quality of decision-making.

Michael Ferguson’s 2016 report on the $4-billion disability benefits system found that some one-third of applicants who were originally denied benefits were later found to be eligible, based on the initial evidence. Often there are unnecessary delays, denials and appeals concerning applications missing supporting medical documents.

It can often take months for a medical adjudicator to make a decision about a request for CPP disability benefits – a timeline the documents say can be reduced through an automated review of applications.

A spokesman for Employment and Social Development Canada says final results of the test officials launched in March won’t be known until late next year, including how to roll the approach out nationally. National standards for medical reviews are already in place.

A new, simplified paper-based application for CPP disability benefits has been delayed until the end of summer, and an online application process is being targeted for later next year.

Applicants for Canada Pension Plan disability benefits gave the program the worst service ratings compared to employment insurance and general CPP payments.

While elements of the experience received good grades, respondents in a recently published survey cited the complicated applications and the time it took to resolve issues as areas for improvement.

It also found that the more times someone had to call on Service Canada for help, the more likely they would give negative reviews to the help they received.

The CPP disability benefit was the outlier in the annual review of government services to Canadians receiving a variety of benefits, including employment insurance, old age security, the guaranteed income supplement for low-income seniors and Canada Pension Plan payments.

Over all, more than eight in 10 respondents said they were satisfied with the help they received from Service Canada.