CRA call-centre errors tax credulity

National Post

2017-11-23


Let's take a tax quiz.

Assuming you owed money on your 2015 tax return, as of what date does the government begin charging you arrears interest? (a) 30 days after it was due; (b) May 1, 2015; (c) April 31, 2016 (sic); (d) May 31, 2016; (e) All of the above. The answer, at least according to responses given by Canada Revenue Agency telephone agents who were asked this question, appears to be "(e) - all of the above."

According to a scathing report issued this week by the Office of the Auditor General (OAG) on the performance of the CRA's call centre, the incorrect response rate on this question by the CRA was an appalling 84 per cent. Answers (a) through (d) above were among some of the incorrect responses various agents gave on the phone when asked when the interest clock starts ticking. (The correct answer is May 2, 2016, since the normal personal tax return filing due date of April 30, 2016, fell on a Saturday).

The report found that when callcentre agents responded to the AG's tax questions, they gave wrong information nearly 30 per cent of the time.

This finding is highly troubling because callers assume the information they get from call-centre agents is accurate. If it's not, it could lead to callers paying too much or too little tax and later being subject to reassessments or objections, with resultant interest and penalties. It might It also flies in the face of the "Taxpayer Bill of Rights." This bill describes and defines 16 rights that build upon the CRA's corporate values of professionalism, respect, integrity, and cooperation and describes the treatment you are entitled to when you deal with the CRA.

Specifically, Right #6 states that "you have the right to complete, accurate, clear, and timely information." The CRA's own website boasts that "Our inquiries agents have extensive training and reference tools that let them respond quickly and accurately to your questions and provide you with the highest quality of service."

Between February and April 2017, the OAG made 255 calls to CRA call centres to assess the accuracy of the information provided by its agents. They used 17 questions, some of which were the same as those used by the CRA or other external studies to assess the accuracy of information provided by call centre agents. The questions asked were general in nature so agents didn't need to access a specific taxpayer account. While the CRA's internal assessment found inaccurate responses between 6 and 20 per cent of the time, external tests showed inaccuracy rates of from 24 to 31 per cent while the OAG's tests found that responses were inaccurate almost 30 per cent of the time overall.

This means that the actual rate of agent errors was significantly higher than the CRA's own test results.

How can this be? Surely the CRA tests its own call centre agents regularly to ensure they are giving correct information.

While the CRA does have a "National Quality and Accuracy Learning Program," the OAG found that it did not test the accuracy of agents'responses effectively or independently and thus the OAG concluded that the results of its tests were "unreliable."

For example, one method the CRA used to assess the quality and accuracy of responses was to have a "certified listener" sitting beside the telephone agent to listen to both sides of the call. The certified listener assessed the overall quality of the call, including the agent's technical skills, ability to follow policies and procedures, and accuracy.

The obvious problem with this method is that agents knew that their calls were being monitored and this may have encouraged them to change their behaviour to improve their evaluation.

Another method the CRA used to test agents'accuracy was to have agents make anonymous calls to other agents and ask non-accountspecific questions. Not surprisingly, CRA agents told the OAG that in these cases they often recognized the caller's voice since it was the voice of one of their colleagues. In many cases, their telephone system also identified that the call was coming from a testing line - hardly the most independent way to test an agent's call performance.

While the CRA did use remote listening assessments where its agents were unaware that their calls were being monitored, agents had to selfselect and volunteer to be evaluated using this type of testing and they could withdraw at any time. But due to technology constraints, the ability to listen remotely to calls When CRA agents were interviewed, they said "it was a challenge to find information in the Agency's systems when responding to questions." They used about 29 different applications on the individuals inquiries line and about 25 on the business line, making it difficult to find the right information quickly. Depending on the nature of the question, however, the OAG found that the agent may have only been required to access a few applications or tools.

The CRA responded to the OAG report and said that it was "committed to ensuring that its quality assurance practices are effective and result in improved accuracy." Consequently, the CRA developed a three-pronged improvement plan.

First, the CRA will be launching a new approach to training and evaluating agents "to better assess agent readiness across the national network."

Second, it will be moving to a new callcentre telephony platform which will offer modern call monitoring tools. And thirdly, the CRA will establish a new national quality monitoring team to supplement existing local quality practices to ensure consistency across the national network.

So, what should you do if you feel the information you received from the CRA was inadequate? First, you can use the "CRA Service Complaint process" to file a service complaint.

Second, if you relied on incorrect CRA information that led to interest and penalties, you can apply to the CRA under the "taxpayer relief provisions" of the Income Tax Act to have these charges waived or cancelled.