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Federal call centre project hit with delays as systems hit end of life

OTTAWA — Canada's federal call centres are overwhelmed, antiquated and apparently on the verge of collapse, and the ongoing process to replace them has been plagued with significant delays, newly released documents show.

A series of briefing notes and presentations to officials at Shared Services Canada depict a complex web of different technologies that in some cases are at the end of their life cycle with no way to find spare parts or services if the lines go down.

The documents, obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act, show the new system is supposed to be in place by March 2020 with timelines already being compressed over procurement delays.

Further delays would likely frustrate Canadians with questions about their taxes and social benefits — lengthy hold times remain a top complaint about government call centres — and cause problems internally for federal workers wanting to know why, for instance, they haven't been paid on time.

Those kinds of calls have been coming in from federal workers wondering about delays receiving their paycheques arising from a new payroll system the government is installing to replace the 40-year-old system still in use.

To compensate, Public Services and Procurement Canada, which oversees payments to some 300,000 federal workers across 101 departments and agencies, had to bring more staff into a New Brunswick call centre to handle a tsunami of telephone queries.

The government first started looking at replacing what the documents call "multiple, incompatible systems" in 2013 with a call system that would allow for more automation, email and text chats, and call recording. It would consolidate centres as part of plans to increase efficiency and improve services, something the documents suggest has indeed taken place at the Shared Services Canada help desk.

The new system is also expected to allow call centre agents to work from anywhere, including their homes, which would allow the government to cut real estate costs.

All told, the government estimates it will save $5 million a year from the new system.

The government awarded a 10-year contract to IBM in October to do the work. The company is guaranteed at least $50 million in revenue under the terms of the contract, but the total cost has been blacked out from the documents.

Shared Services Canada said the two sides continue to hammer out the details of how the work will roll out.

The contract was supposed to have been awarded in July 2014, but was pushed back to this past fall.

Internal agency documents show the entire project has been "subject to significant delays for various reasons." More rigorous IT security requirements, the changing needs of the departments involved, requests from bidders for more time and changes to the procurement contract have all pushed the start of work to some time this year.

A June 2015 briefing to Shared Service Canada officials overseeing the project shows that the first wave of migrations to the new system — 86 call centres and 8,552 agents for ESDC and CRA — was proposed to have started earlier this year with the last batch of departments, agencies and the House of Commons to start migration by the end of 2016.

Jordan Press, The Canadian Press

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