January 10th, 2020
Service cuts coming home to roost
While it’s tempting to view the role of a government through the lens of big national and international issues, there is a lot of administrative work that comes with the job as well. Ministers inherit full departments staffed with bureaucrats responsible for fleshing out and administering policy directives and legislative initiatives. While this may not sound as flashy as some of the issues that grip parliament, it has a huge effect on people’s lives.
This has been coming for years and for some front-line workers it is old news, but the ability of the government to administer many of its programs has slowly become less effective and the proof of that is now out in the open. A recent study from the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses provides the latest example of the problems people are having accessing necessary services and information from federal departments. The report focuses on CRA wait times which have gone up. CRA claims they are dropping less calls, but it’s clear that the system is only accepting more calls while adding longer wait times to speak to an agent. In addition to that nearly 40% of the calls that were processed provided the callers with incorrect information. According to the CFIB, most of those calls related to the GST/HST which should be fully understood by those answering on behalf of the department.
This shouldn’t be too surprising. For decades governments have cut into the meat of our public service to the point that they are not able to meet our needs. Now that we have more proof of this, it is time to consider a reinvestment in those services which have proven to be under-staffed.
CRA has been hit, like all departments, by governments choosing to pursue balanced budgets while handing out tax breaks at the same time. That means that although some Canadians received tax breaks, we all paid for those with reduced services from thread-bare departments. For example, Veterans Affairs and Human Resources and Skills Development Canada lost 24 per cent of their staff between 2012 and 2016. In the same time period, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency lost 20% of its staff, and Statistics Canada lost 35 per cent of its full-time staff. That’s cutting meat, not fat.
Adding to the problem is the fact that most people don’t receive much in the way of tax cuts. Those have always flowed to top earners who rely less on services like employment insurance. Despite that the promise of tax cuts continues to be sold – quite successfully – to Canadians who receive little and lose a lot in the process. It’s also affecting businesses – especially small ones – who may not have the resources to spend exorbitant amounts of time of the telephone waiting to speak with someone.
It’s time to build this up again so that Canadians needs are met by their government. The problem has been building for a long time and we knew that it was getting worse before the CRA phone issue was confirmed. CRA attempted to address those issues with a new phone system which only resulted in more callers waiting in a queue to speak to an agent and then again to speak to someone in the department if the agent was unable to provide an answer.
What’s missing from the equation is an over-arching plan to ensure Canadians receive the service they require in a timely manner. Government demands on individuals never cease and there are penalties for those who don’t comply in time with their taxes. Yet there are no penalties for governments that make it more difficult for us to receive accurate information to fulfil these responsibilities.