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The Canada Revenue Agency headquarters in Ottawa is pictured on November 4, 2011. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

The Canadian Press

The Canada Revenue Agency's call centres blocked more than half the calls they received and gave taxpayers the wrong answers to their questions nearly one third of the time, the federal Auditor-General says.

Auditor-General Michael Ferguson's fall report, tabled in the House of Commons on Tuesday, found that the CRA actively blocked calls from taxpayers so that it could say it met its service standard of keeping people waiting no more than two minutes – and reported making far fewer errors than auditors discovered.

"We found that the customer-service results that the Canada Revenue Agency reports makes its call-centre service look better than it really is," Mr. Ferguson said on Tuesday.

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For instance, the CRA says 90 per cent of its callers are able to connect with either a call-centre agent or its automated self-service system. While this is technically true, Mr. Ferguson said the agency's results reflect only part of the caller's experience.

"The CRA's reported rate does not reflect that, on average, a taxpayer has to call about four times in a week just to get through to the agency," Mr. Ferguson said.

"We found that the agency's number didn't account for the 29 million calls it blocked in a year – more than half of its total call volume [53.5 million]. Those calls either get a busy signal, a message to visit the agency's website or a message to call back later."

The CRA's service standard stipulates that 75 per cent to 80 per cent of the time, callers should wait no more than two minutes to speak with an agent. The report said that, over all, the CRA answered only 36 per cent of calls between March, 2016, and March, 2017.

The report also found that the CRA significantly underestimated its rate of agent errors. Between February and April of 2017, the Auditor-General's office made 255 calls to the CRA to assess the accuracy of information provided by call-centre agents. It found that the agency gave wrong answers to their questions nearly 30 per cent of the time – much higher than CRA's own reported 6.5-per-cent error rate. The auditor noted that misinformation could cause taxpayers to file incorrect returns, miss filing deadlines, pay too little or too much tax or miss out on tax benefits.

The high rate of incorrect responses could be caused by gaps in training or the fact that agents are using too many different applications to look for answers, the report concluded. It described some of CRA's accuracy testing as ineffective, including a process in which agents are supposed to call other agents anonymously to see how well they answer general questions.

"Agents told us that in these cases, they often recognized the caller's voice, since it was the voice of one of their colleagues. In many cases, their telephone system also identified that the call was coming from a testing line," the report read.

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Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said some of MPs' most difficult case work involves helping constituents who received bad advice from the CRA.

"They [constituents] checked, they called in, and seeing them across the table in an MP's office, sometimes in tears, because their accounts are frozen, they're treated like criminals, that is one of the difficult things for me – I think any member of Parliament – to watch," Mr. Scheer said on Tuesday.

The Auditor-General recommended that the CRA review how it manages calls by considering increasing its maximum wait time to speak with an agent and telling callers how long they will have to stay on the line so they can decide whether to try again later. The report also suggested the CRA improve its performance indicators for accessibility, accuracy and timeliness.

National Revenue Minister Diane Lebouthillier said the government agrees with the Auditor-General's recommendations, adding that Ottawa has invested $50-million over four years to improve service at the CRA's call centres. She said Canadians will start to experience the improvements in 2018, when the agency implements a new phone platform that will connect callers with agents more efficiently and inform them of their wait times. A new "national quality-control team" will be put in place to improve agents' tools and training, and service standards will be updated.

"For millions of Canadians, our call centres are their first choice to interact with the agency," Ms. Lebouthillier said in a statement. "Our clients have a right to receive information that is clear and precise, when they need it."

The Auditor-General's report said the CRA is obliged to provide "complete, accurate, clear and timely information to taxpayers" under the Taxpayer Bill of Rights.

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NDP MP David Christopherson said on Tuesday that the call centres are providing none of that.

"The rights that Canadians should have are not being respected, they're not being honoured," he said. "In fact, this agency is trying to hoodwink Canadians."

Mr. Ferguson said the audit indicates that departments do not consider the results of their programs and services from the viewpoint of the citizens they serve.

"It's possible that our message of citizen-centric service delivery has been heard at the individual program level, however, we see no signs of it being picked up governmentwide," Mr. Ferguson said.

"Government is supposed to be about service to citizens."

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