OTTAWA — 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.
Sylvain Ricard's office audited call centres at three departments that receive a lot of phone calls: the Immigration Department, Employment and Social Development Canada and Veterans Affairs.
"Overall, we found that getting through to government call centres took time and persistence," the audit report says. "In fact, we found that half of the 16 million Canadians who tried to speak to an agent could not do so."
Seven million callers were sent to an automated system or were told to go to a website or to call back later.
"This audit is important because call centres are a key source of government information," Ricard said in the report. "Callers make millions of calls to the government every year to get the information they need to make time-sensitive, important decisions. For example, they may be calling to ensure that they receive benefits on time 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 said it's limited by 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 said 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.
"While these call centres wait for modern technology, they face the risk of aging hardware breaking down and software no longer being supported," the audit report says.
All government agencies have accepted the auditor's findings and say they are taking steps to improve service. The Immigration Department hired more 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 — a move planned to be completed in 2020. Veterans Affairs said it will extend its TTY services to include all calls handled by its national contact centre.
But NDP immigration critic Jenny Kwan says she was shocked to see a lack of service standards and long wait times for those trying to contact immigration officials by telephone.
"It's astounding that 70 per cent of callers can't even get through to talk to someone live at the other end," she said. "How is this acceptable for the Liberals — for Canadians not to be able to get the most basic information that they deserve?"