07/30/2011 04:30 EDT | Updated 09/29/2011 05:12 EDT

Service Canada Review: Secret Shoppers To Rate Government Services At Outlets Across The Country


OTTAWA - Bureaucrats be warned: that person with a lost wallet or passport application might be a plant.

The public face of the public service better be smiling when secret shoppers fan out across the country.

The federal agency that gives Canadians a single point of access to a host of government services wants to know whether staff on the front lines are cheery and helpful.

So the bureau called Service Canada plans to hire secret shoppers to see whether it lives up to its name.

Thirteen programs will be put to the test. People posing as pensioners will rate Service Canada on how well it handles queries about old age and guaranteed income supplement benefits.

Other secret shoppers will pretend to have questions about employment insurance, lost wallets, passports, social insurance numbers, finding a job and getting grants for apprenticeships.

The mystery shoppers will also take to the Internet to see how Service Canada fares online.

"The key research objectives ... are to measure quality of service, gather specific information about Service Canada services; and, to measure service experience," says a notice posted on a website that advertises government contracts.

A pilot mystery shopper program ran between 2007 and 2009. A report on that pilot project found most face-to-face dealings with Service Canada staff were generally pleasant.

But not always, as one secret shopper found while looking for information on employment insurance compassionate care benefits.

"The queue line was very small and everyone was forced to stand uncomfortably close to each other in order to fit within the line-up area. I waited in this crowded line-up before it was my turn to speak with the receptionist who seemed to be working at a snail's pace," the shopper reported.

"I walked up to the booth and the receptionist looked up at me blankly, waiting for me to speak. I told her that I might need to leave work to take care of my grandmother who was ill. She asked, very bluntly, if my grandmother was going to die. When I said 'Yes,' she told me, in a monotone voice, that I could apply for EI compassionate care. She handed me photocopies of forms which she told me a doctor needed to sign, and told me to look up compassionate care on the web.

"I left the office feeling sad that information on EI compassionate care could not have been provided with a more compassionate attitude."

The findings from this new secret shopper study will be used to measure the level of service in the years to come.

The agency says it wants to "identify any gaps and-or areas of concern with the service delivery experience," "provide insights into service issues" and "identify opportunities for service enhancements."

About 1,000 Service Canada locations will be targeted. The work will wrap up by the end of March.

The department of Human Resources and Skills Development, which oversees Service Canada, says complaints did not prompt the secret shopper program.

"The mystery shopper research program is not triggered by complaints," the department said in an email. "It is ongoing methodology that we use in Service Canada for quality management for continuous improvement of services offered."

Service Canada isn't the only arm of government taking a look at itself. Canada Post also wants to know if its people deliver.

The national postal service plans to hire secret shoppers to check out its post offices and retail outlets across the country.

The contract is for three years with the option to extend for up to five years.

The postal service already runs secret-shopper programs at 1,000 of its roughly 6,400 offices every three months.

"Mystery shopper results from national shops indicate that the post offices are performing well on customer service," a contract document says.

"However, current efforts to increase sales skills performance to meet the established targets continue to be a challenge."

The mystery shopper will also see whether post offices are following all official language rules.

The auditor general has recommended twice before that the post office beef up its secret-shopper program. Audits from 2004 and 2006 urged Canada Post to send mystery shoppers to all its bilingual outlets.