More than six years after warning of excessive waiting times and frequently unreliable answers from Canada Revenue Agency call centres, Auditor-General Karen Hogan is planning a fresh review after concerns that client complaints are well above prepandemic levels – in spite of major spending and staffing increases.
Conservative MP Adam Chambers wrote to Ms. Hogan last month asking for her to review the situation, given that the auditor’s office was critical of call-centre performance in a 2017 report. That report called on the CRA to better manage waiting times and improve the accuracy of answers provided to the public.
Ms. Hogan responded to Mr. Chambers in a letter Monday, confirming that her office will conduct a review.
“The scope of the work is currently being determined and we expect the follow-up work to begin no later than April, 2024,” Ms. Hogan wrote, thanking Mr. Chambers for the request. “Informing us of the issues that concern you as a parliamentarian helps us to better serve Parliament.”
Mr. Chambers provided The Globe and Mail with a copy of the letter.
The Canada Revenue Agency recently tabled information in Parliament showing its budget for call-centre operations is at $368.6-million for the current fiscal year. That’s down from a two-year spike during the pandemic, when the CRA played a major role in distributing emergency benefits, but well above the $149.1-million spent in 2015-16.
Similarly, the number of full-time employees at CRA call centres is estimated to be 5,610 this year, up from 2,651 in 2015-16. Staffing levels also went through a two-year spike during the height of the pandemic, peaking at 7,319 in 2022-23.
Meanwhile, federal Taxpayers’ Ombudsperson François Boileau released a report last week showing complaints to his office are up 45 per cent from prepandemic levels. The office received 2,189 complaints in the 2022-23 fiscal year, down from a mid-pandemic peak of 3,847, but up from 1,507 complaints in 2019-20.
Mr. Chambers received the call-centre staffing figures in response to a written request to the agency, which prompted him to write to Ms. Hogan.
“Over this past year, I have continued to hear from countless taxpayers, parliamentary colleagues, small businesses, and others about continued frustration with CRA’s call centres – ranging from long wait times, blocked calls and incorrect or confusing advice provided. Recent media reports support such claims,” Mr. Chambers wrote.
The letter questions what has been accomplished with the significant additional funding to improve call-centre performance.
“A massive budgetary increase and a huge jump in employee count should result in improved service standards and outcomes for taxpayers. Unfortunately, productivity and service metrics have deteriorated. This is most unfortunate for both callers and taxpayers,” he wrote.
In a statement Monday, Mr. Chambers said the government has not followed up on the Auditor-General’s 2017 recommendations.
Mr. Boileau said he was “very happy” to hear that the Auditor-General will review the issue and urged her office to consider some of his policy recommendations on the issue.
In an interview, he said he’s not in a position to say whether the increased spending and staffing at call centres is the right amount. However, he said it’s clear that complaints are on the rise.
While his recent report only covered the 2022-23 fiscal year, he said his office has already received about the same number of complaints with four months left in the current fiscal year.
“We’re flooded with complaints,” he said.
One simple change he says the CRA could make is to allow Canadians to request a call back online without having to call in and wait on hold for long periods of time. He said the CRA had previously agreed with that recommendation, but he’s seen no progress since.
Mr. Boileau said the number of complaints is still a very small percentage of the number of interactions Canadians have with the CRA. He also said that in addition to complaints over waiting on hold to reach a CRA official, he also receives many complaints about the qualify of information that the call-centre agents provide.
“Sometimes, the information is not accurate, or the information is in contradiction to other information they received from another agent. Or it’s just not the right information to convey to clients. So they turn to us unhappy with what’s going on,” he said. “We rarely receive good news in our office. That is the nature of the beast.”
CRA spokesperson Nina Ioussoupova said in a statement that complaints in 2022-23 were down significantly from the two previous years.
“Using the year before the pandemic as a benchmark does not take into account the significant increase in CRA’s service offerings since the start of the pandemic, including unprecedented delivery of various emergency benefits,” she said.
Ms. Ioussoupova added that the addition of an online feedback form in 2022 contributed to an increase in complaints. “We continue to work hard to improve our services to taxpayers,” she said.
The CRA said that while it does offer an automated callback service during peak periods, its current telephone technology doesn’t allow for a scheduled callback feature. The agency said adding this will be a priority for the next generation of its platform.