Millions of calls to govt. agencies unanswered, says AG report

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Anyone calling a government agency can quite possibly attest to having hung up in frustration. In fact, 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.

Callers are facing too many barriers when trying to call the government for services or information.

Call centres at three departments that receive a lot of telephone calls, the Immigration Department, Employment and Social Development Canada and Veterans Affairs, were audited.

Seven million callers were sent to an automated system or were told to go to a website or to call back later.

The report found that callers call for time-sensitive information and material which can cause a lot of frustration.

For example, they may be calling for their benefits 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 that 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.

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. Veterans Affairs said it would extend its TTY services to include all calls handled by its national contact centre.

But calls to the Immigration Department take so long because the demand is growing faster than the department can handle. -CINEWS

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