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The Survey Rigged for Budget Cuts

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Stephen Harper is getting ready to slash 10 per cent of Veterans' Affairs' budget but he says veterans will be unaffected. That doesn't make sense, unless you know government has the 2010 National Client Survey in its planning pocket. It says that veterans are very pleased with Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC). Logically, you could trim the edge off "very pleased" and still have satisfied people.

Provided the survey is accurate.

So, in 2010, were veterans satisfied with Veterans Affairs Canada?

Depends on who you ask.

That July, this average civilian watched amazed as then-Veterans' Ombudsman Colonel Pat Stogran held a press conference. The Colonel took the stage with Dennis Manuge and the now-departed Brian Dyck. During the following month, I read literally thousands of comments from veterans who were upset, disillusioned, and above all angry. I learned about disputes over everything from hearing aids to coverage for depleted uranium or Agent Orange exposure.

I learned of ridiculously long processing times and of the routine need for court battles. I got news of how VAC officials used private medical information to discredit Sean Bruyea and other veterans' advocates, or worse, to gain retribution by cutting their benefits.

Meanwhile, back at Veterans' Affairs, data was being tabulated for the 2010 Veterans' Affairs National Client Survey. Results would be presented to Treasury Board in the fall, as proof of VAC's successes and failures. Survey results would be critical to future planning.

The NCS has some interesting data. Like which method veterans prefer for contacting VAC (telephone). Like how many close friends and relatives a veteran has (8.3). Like how a minority of clients have trouble taking part in activities because of physical and/or emotional problems.

Wait...a minority???

Now, I know members of the Canadian Forces and RCMP are tough, but they are not demigods. If they are receiving disability benefits then, ipso facto, they have disabilities and, hence, trouble taking part in activities.

It seems there is a flaw in the survey.

Actually, it seems there are many flaws in the survey.

In fact, it turns out the survey is worthless.

Here's why: The survey was 30 minutes long. It asks some questions again, just in case you changed your mind. It asked about Remembrance programs, which you don't need to be a VAC client to access.

And, despite government regulations, it doesn't account for people who refused the survey.

Imagine this: You came back from "peacekeeping" in the 90s. In Bosnia, you busted your back and lost part of your hearing. In Croatia, you lost your sanity, your left foot, and the rest of your hearing when you drove over a mine.

Since then, you have been fighting for benefits. VAC paid for your foot but they can't comprehend how not having that foot impacts your back. They don't accept your wife's word that you wake up screaming nightly -- she's your wife and would lie for you. VAC won't pay for your hearing aids. According to them, your ears were bad before the blast, so you can't blame the landmine. A member of the appeal board once suggested you should have turned down your walkman.

That's your life. Your scream all night in your dreams, and all day on the phone about your benefits. Then, one evening, your phone rings. It's Veterans' Affairs. They want to know how satisfied you are with them...

And that's where the National Client Survey fails massively: it doesn't account for clients who refused the survey. All the results in the NCS are based on the 29 per cent of clients who had half an hour to spare, and were not so angry with VAC that they pitched the phone across the room.

The final result? The National Client Survey says the amount of veterans and families who are satisfied with their programs and benefits is... (drum roll) -- 80 per cent!

Really? Eighty per cent of veterans were satisfied in 2010?

Because on November 6 that year, right across Canada and for the first time in our history, there were rallies protesting problems with Veterans Affairs, specifically with services and benefits. The people at those rallies? Angry veterans. A whole lot of angry veterans. I ought to know; I was standing there surrounded by them.

The National Client Survey was accepted by Treasury Board. Perhaps Harper is thinking that his cuts will mean a one per cent drop in satisfaction. Which is not a big deal, if that's the difference between 80 and 79 per cent. But if it brings 50 to 49 per cent, then that is failure. Undoubtedly, the survey is being used to plan these cuts.

This deeply-flawed, non-compliant-with-government-standards, doesn't-make-any-sense- on- its-face, survey.

You can judge the NCS for yourself. A report outlining its failures is available at Our Duty.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post stated that Sean Bruyea was on stage for the 27 July press conference. This was not the case.