OTTAWA – It may not surprise those who tried, unsuccessfully, to contact a federal department or agency on the phone in the last year or so, but a new report from the federal auditor general has found that millions of callers were unable to speak with a real person when they called looking for assistance.

The audit — which looked at the call centres of Employment and Social Development Canada; Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada; and Veterans Affairs Canada — was tabled in Parliament Tuesday morning as part of the spring package of auditor general reports.

"Half of the 16 million Canadians trying to reach an agent in a government call centre could not get through," the report states.

People calling these departments include those applying for disability benefits, inquiring about their pensions or old age security, calling about the status of their citizenship or permanent resident applications and veterans or their families inquiring about benefit programs.

The audit found that, at both the department of Employment and Social Development and the department of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, instead of giving callers the option to wait to speak with an agent, millions of callers were redirected to an automated system, told to go to the website, or advised to call back another time.

For those who called Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada and were able to get through, the wait to speak with an agent was around 30 minutes. While Veterans Affairs did not bump any calls to an automated system, many waiting to speak with someone hung up before their call was taken.

In each of these cases the auditor general's office examined different periods of time for each department, based on internal data.

Here's a breakdown of the millions of calls made:

  • 40 per cent of calls about Employment Insurance were prevented from reaching an agent; while 52 per cent were answered, and eight per cent hung up.
  • 42 per cent of calls about the Canada Pension Plan or old age security were prevented from reaching an agent; while 49 per cent were answered, and nine per cent hung up.
  • 70 per cent of calls to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada were prevented from reaching an agent, while 22 per cent were answered and eight per cent hung up.
  • None of the calls to Veterans Affairs Canada were prevented from reaching an agent, though only 79 per cent of callers actually spoke with an agent, the other 21 per cent hung up before their calls were taken.

"Call centres are a key source of government information. Callers make millions of calls to the government every year to get the information they need to make time-sensitive, important decisions," the report states.

Among the issues the AG's office noted in this probe was that Veterans Affairs Canada stopped providing teletypewriter services for callers who are deaf and hard of hearing, but did not consult, or tell veterans first.

Both Employment and Social Development Canada and Veterans Affairs Canada had targets for how many minutes it should take to answer a call, though on average less than half of the calls to these centres are answered within the targeted time frame. Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada did not set what the AG referred to as a "timeliness target."

The recommendations the report makes for these departments include improving the management of incoming calls by looking at allowing callers to decide if they prefer to wait, or have the call centre call them back later; and proactively reporting on call centre service standards and performance results.

During a media availability about the report, experts from the auditor general’s office said that more transparency about the wait times Canadians will be facing when they call these agencies would go a long way, and that the office is looking forward to seeing how these departments implement the recommendations.

In response to the auditor general's findings, the departments cited call volumes exceeding their capacities, the lack of funding to hire more call agents, and waiting on access to updated technology. Largely, the departments agreed with the findings and have vowed to make improvements.

This is not the first time the auditor general has looked into, and found lacking, customer service and other troubling practices at government call centres.

The department that oversees all government IT, Shared Services Canada is in the midst of consolidating and modernizing all 221 of its call centres, and now five years into that work, those improvements had occurred in just eight. With no final plan on completing the rest, the AG's office is estimating it'll be years before all Canadians who call into federal call centres for assistance receive efficient service.

Responding to interim Auditor General Sylvain Ricard’s findings, the minister responsible for Employment and Social Development Canada, Jean-Yves Duclos, said that the response rate for Canadians calling federal agencies has improved since the end of the previous Conservative government’s term.

Further, in a joint ministerial statement from several ministers, the government said that it is “committed to delivering the best service possible to Canadians, and to offering convenient, timely and easily accessible services directly by telephone,” and that “significant work is underway” to improve service, including hiring more call centre agents, extending business hours, and launching a new callback feature so Canadians won’t have to wait on the line, and instead will be phoned when an agent is available to speak with them.