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The CRA fails Canadians in more ways than one

November 27, 2017
The CRA fails Canadians in more ways than one

(This column originally appeared in the Toronto Sun)

The release of an Auditor General’s report is rarely a happy occasion for the government of the day, and this fall’s offering from federal Auditor General Michael Ferguson was no exception: from a stinging indictment of the billion-dollar Phoenix payroll system boondoggle, to a clear failure by immigration officials to properly track key indicators about Syrian refugees, to evidence of poor governance at the Royal Military College of Canada.

But perhaps most surprising was Ferguson’s audit of the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA)’s call centers and their staggering inability to handle taxpayers’ calls, and to answer questions properly.

Ferguson found that last year, a full 54% of calls made to the CRA – 28.9 million in all – were blocked by the agency; add in another 14% of calls directed to an automated menu, and any Canadian calling had less than a one in three chance of speaking to a human being.

Was the CRA simply overloaded? Not exactly. As Ferguson noted, the number of CRA agents answering calls rose by 23% over the last five years. But because the CRA has a “service standard” requiring it to keep call wait times to under two minutes, when the average wait time started to get close to two minutes, the CRA’s call centre traffic team came up with a simple trick to help keep the average down: they would simply block additional calls.

Even if you are lucky enough to get through to an agent, be wary about the answer you get: Ferguson found that almost 30% of the time, agents were giving incorrect answers to basic queries. For example, in response to a question about when interest owed would begin to accrue, the wrong answer was given by the CRA agent a shocking 84% of the time.

As if all this weren’t enough, the CRA’s quality control system – designed to catch inaccurate responses by agents – didn’t work properly, meaning the CRA remained blissfully unaware of the extent of the problem.

For the many Canadians who already have a hate-hate relationship with the taxman, such terrible customer service adds insult to injury.

And to be fair to the CRA, it is probably unrealistic to expect every agent to have a comprehensive grasp of our tax code (the Income Tax Act alone runs over a million words on 3,000 pages.)

The best long-term solution would be to simplify the tax code, making it easier for Canadians to figure out their taxes themselves and reducing the number of calls made to CRA in the first place.

In the meantime, the CRA needs to get its act together and start treating Canadians with a lot more respect by not blocking their calls, and ensuring that if agents can’t answer their questions correctly, they pass them along to someone else who can.  

Canadians work hard to pay their taxes. Is it too much to expect decent service from the people collecting them?

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