Some CRA systems are ‘systemically oppressive’ towards vulnerable populations: taxpayers’ ombudsman

Systemic but unintentional barriers:

The federal taxpayers’ ombudsman says some of Canada Revenue Agency’s (CRA) processes are “systemically oppressive” towards vulnerable populations as well as indigenous, rural and northern communities.

“These (tax) filers feel they receive conflicting information, the processes are unfair and the CRA does not address their unique circumstances and needs,” Canada’s outgoing Taxpayers’ Ombudsman, Sherra Profit, writes in her 2019-2020 annual report published Wednesday.

“This general belief leads to reluctance to interact with a system much of the population believes to be systemically oppressive and in turn reduces the likelihood people receive all the benefits, credits and deductions to which they are entitled,” the report says.

That belief by indigenous, rural and northern communities isn’t just a question of perception, Profit later specified in an interview with the National Post.

“One’s perception is reality. It is their reality,” said the head of the taxpayers’ watchdog.

Over her five-year mandate that ends on July 5, Profit says she found multiple instances where CRA’s bureaucracy was overly rigid and had significant communication issues with taxpayers.

She says that can be particularly problematic for vulnerable populations who don’t always have quick or timely access to some basic services.

“There are aspects of the CRA systems and processes that will be more oppressive to certain groups (…) For example, so many people don’t have a family doctor. So asking for a letter from a family doctor isn’t going to work from them,” Profit said.

“There are also socio-economic classes of people who are in housing situations where it may be very difficult to get a lease or a letter on a letterhead from a landlord,” she said, adding that these CRA systems are not intentionally designed to be oppressive.

In her report, she highlights one particularly shocking case where a woman who depended on the Canada Child Benefit (CCB) for day-to-day living was suddenly cut off from payments and demanded to reimburse $16,000.

After she reached out to CRA for an explanation, the agency told her the documents she submitted in her reapplication after separation from her ex-spouse were “not legible”.

“Instead of requesting she resend them, the CRA stopped her benefits. The complainant resent the documents and called several times to get updates, without success,” Profit explains in the report.

It took an urgent intervention by the Taxpayers’ Ombudsman’s office to have CRA conduct a review of the file, according to the report. The CRA then understood why it was more difficult for the applicant to reapply for CCB.

“At this time it became known that her living situation was not safe and she was forced into an emergency shelter while trying to find permanent housing. Losing the CCB further complicated finding a suitable home for her children,” the report said.

At that point, the CRA not only quickly approved her new application, but also manually processed a retroactive CCB payment and then sent her the December payment early to assist with holiday spending.

“I do find there is a lot of breakdown in communication,” Profit said. “I know the CRA is making changes to how it administers programs like the CCB, but we’re finding we’re still seeing a lot of these complaints.”

Another issue she’s noted over her tenure as the taxpayers’ ombudsman is that various CRA departments tend to operate in silos.

That would explain why someone could be repeatedly asked by the agency to provide the same information or documentation over and over, for example.

“There are systems that don’t talk to one another, Profit said. That’s something I’ve really been constantly bringing up. (CRA needs) a more horizontal approach to look at things as a whole.”

Overall though, Profit says she’s encouraged by efforts made by the CRA to improve service to Canadians and gradually adopt more client-centric approach.

As an example, she noted the appointment of a Chief Services Officer in March 2018 whose job is to transform the agency’s culture and significantly improve the quality and speed of services offered to Canadians.

“They’re at least starting to talk the talk. They know there are issues, they know they are problems, and they have that Chief Services Officer who is looking at it with a whole-of-organization perspective,” the ombudsman explained.

But in order for her own organization to better do its job, Profit says the federal government needs to increase its budget and make her office report to Parliament.

As of now, the Taxpayers’ Ombudsman reports directly to the Minister of National Revenue, who is in charge of CRA.

“This structure creates an inherent element of conflict of interest in the ombudsman reporting to the Minister responsible for the department or agency the ombudsman is tasked with overseeing. A Minister has a vested interested in ensuring their department or agency is perceived to be operating effectively and efficiently,” Profit agues in her report.

Source: Some CRA systems are ‘systemically oppressive’ towards vulnerable populations: taxpayers’ ombudsman

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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