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1996 September Report of the Auditor General of Canada

Assistant Auditor General: Maria Barrados
Responsible Auditor: Theresa Duk

Main Points

14.1 The federal government delivers many services directly to the public, ranging from issuing passports to answering tax enquiries, to processing claims for employment insurance. However, recent studies continue to show that Canadians remain generally dissatisfied with federal services.

14.2 Since 1990, the government has committed itself to establishing service standards and being accountable for the resulting performance. Service standards would clearly specify the quality of service Canadians can expect to receive, including its timeliness, accessibility and accuracy. An original goal of the government's was to have standards published for major services by March 1994 and to report performance in 1994-95. Later, the goal was extended to the end of 1995.

14.3 Our audit of 13 highly visible services revealed that the government's expectations have not been realized. As of 31 March 1996, although many of the 13 services had put in place some elements of the concept, none of them had implemented service standards that met all the requirements.

14.4 Information on clients' priorities is a prerequisite for developing sound service standards and improvement plans. Only about half the services we audited have collected information on client priorities and their relative importance. Even fewer have assessed their clients' satisfaction with the way each of their priorities is served. This knowledge is important; there is little point to investing effort in areas where client priority is low and satisfaction high when there may be a much better return in areas of high priority and low satisfaction. We also found that many services have not determined the full costs of delivering service. Cost information helps to ensure that government clients receive high-quality and affordable services.

14.5 Telephone services are a significant and growing method of contact between Canadians and the government - with more than 30 million calls answered per year in the six operations we examined. However, the quality of government telephone services needs attention. In one department we found that during peak periods as many as 19 out of 20 calls receive a busy signal. Few departments check the accuracy rate of information that agents give to callers - one that has done so found that the accuracy rate falls between 60 and 80 percent. We believe that departments could and should apply service standards to remedy these persistent problems.

14.6 Much in the area of service standards remains to be done, and a sustained effort is required. Deputy ministers need to provide leadership to ensure that departments focus sufficient effort on major services and follow appropriate plans in developing and implementing service standards. So far, little information has been provided to Parliament to indicate clearly the progress against implementation goals. The government needs to improve its reporting to Parliament on this important subject.


Service standards to improve service to the public
14.7 The federal government delivers many services directly to the public, ranging from issuing passports to answering tax enquiries, to processing claims for employment insurance. However, recent studies continue to show that Canadians remain dissatisfied with federal services.

14.8 The government wants to improve its services through the use of client-oriented service standards that clearly specify the quality of service Canadians can expect to receive, including its timeliness, accessibility and accuracy. A client-oriented approach requires managers to consult clients about their needs and priorities, and to seek input from staff on ways to improve the delivery of service.

14.9 Client-oriented service requires looking at the entire delivery process from the client's point of view. This can lead to better, more efficient service because it provides insights to the problems that cause errors and rework. A focus on client priorities also helps managers, in times of shrinking budgets, to decide from a client's perspective what should be funded or cut back.

14.10 A client-oriented approach also promotes transparency and accountability. If clients have a clear idea of what they can expect, it is easier for them, in turn, to consider the reasonableness of their expectations. If staff are involved in setting standards, they will be more willing to be held accountable for actual performance. Companies in the private sector have found a strong correlation between client and employee satisfaction. If clients are happy, employees are likely to be more satisfied, and vice versa.

Public services oriented to clients and citizens
14.11 Of the full range of activities undertaken by the public service, some lend themselves more to client-oriented service standards than others. Government services are often categorized as follows:

  • policy and legislative development functions;
  • regulatory and enforcement activities; and
  • conventional service delivery to Canadians.
14.12 Policy and legislative development is a complex function that has no direct counterpart in the private sector. A linkage exists, however, between policy and the direct service delivery activities of government. Regulatory and enforcement activities demand a complex range of considerations. Most notably, as these services generally impose constraints for the public good, the "client" focus must be broadly interpreted as a focus on citizens so that neither the public's perception nor that of specific target groups - for example, representatives of an industry being regulated - is ignored in evaluating the services provided.

14.13 Conventional service delivery most closely approximates private sector operations; these direct services lend themselves most closely to the private sector approach to service quality. For government, clients can be defined generally as Canadians who avail themselves of the services in question. We focussed our audit on high-volume services provided to Canadians by the federal government.

Public Service 2000 set the stage
14.14 In 1989, the federal government launched Public Service 2000 (PS 2000), an initiative to renew the public service. PS 2000 was designed to bring the public service into the 21st century in the face of various pressures, including fiscal restraints. It was aimed at developing innovative ways to encourage efficiency and to improve program delivery.

14.15 The Task Force on Service to the Public, one of the PS 2000 task forces, reported that:

  • most departments had not enunciated formal levels of service;
  • clients were not consulted to the extent required;
  • the public service, with some exceptions, was not service-oriented;
  • new technology was underused in comparison with the private sector; and
  • service considerations tended to be secondary to administrative ones.
The Task Force recommended, among other actions, that the government develop a service-oriented culture and implement service standards.

14.16 The government's 1990 white paper The Renewal of the Public Service of Canada, which reflected the recommendations of PS 2000 task forces, included a commitment to "openness and consultation in providing services to the people of Canada." The white paper committed deputy ministers to establish clear standards of service, and to be accountable for the reasonableness of those standards and the quality of service provided to the public. They were to ensure that information about client satisfaction and suggestions for improving service was regularly sought from both clients and employees, and were to establish simple procedures for responding to complaints. These commitments became known as the Service Standards Initiative.

14.17 Since 1990, the government has made a series of commitments to this Initiative. For example, in the 1995-96 Estimates, the government stated a commitment to ensuring that clients receive high-quality, affordable services that are accessible and responsive, and that balance the interests of taxpayers with those of service recipients. Some of the other major commitments are summarized in Exhibit 14.1 . Over the period when these commitments were being made, government departments were also being reorganized, budgets were being cut, the public service was being downsized and programs were being reviewed.

14.18 In late 1995, the government distributed to the public service its Declaration of Quality Service Principles ( see Exhibit 14.2 ), reaffirming its commitment to the Service Standards Initiative.

Focus of our audit
14.19 The objective of our audit was to assess the government's progress in developing client-oriented service standards, and to review how departments are using performance information to improve service. We focussed on 13 highly visible services that are delivered directly to the public, such as customs inspection of travellers and social security benefits. The services we selected are typically used by Canadians at one time or another during their lives ( see Exhibit 14.3 ). We examined two additional services - the Trade-mark Branch and Spectrum Management Operations, both of Industry Canada - because the progress they have made can provide valuable lessons for other federal departments. The results from our examination of these two services are not included in our tabulations.

14.20 The 13 services we examined included a mix of telephone, mail, walk-in and even electronic access such as fax-back and computerized kiosk. As telephones have become the most frequently used method of contact between Canadians and their governments, we gave special attention to the telephone operations in six of the 13 selected services ( see Exhibit 14.4 ).

14.21 Our findings reflect the situation as of 31 March 1996. Further details on our approach to the audit are presented at the end of the chapter in About the Audit .

Observations and Recommendations

Service Standards

14.22 The Service Standards Initiative is a centrally driven, government-wide initiative that requires service managers to establish service standards and be accountable for the resulting performance. The President of the Treasury Board was assigned overall responsibility for the initiative. The Secretary of the Treasury Board took a lead role in developing guidance, requesting progress reports and co-ordinating interdepartmental networks and committees. Deputy ministers, for their part, were required to report progress within their departments and, since 1992, have been required to include such reports in the departmental multi-year operational plans (now the business plans).

14.23 A committee on service standards, composed of assistant deputy ministers from line departments and representatives of the Treasury Board Secretariat and the Office of the Comptroller General, was established in 1991 to provide guidance to departments on how to implement service standards. Each department designated a person to take on additional duties as a co-ordinator for service standards, reporting generally to an official at the assistant deputy minister level. An Interdepartmental Quality Network was established in 1991 to serve as a forum and catalyst for discussions, with the aim of fostering quality management concepts and promoting quality of service. Other interdepartmental networks were also established, including those that later evolved into the Service Standards Network. All of these structures still exist.

14.24 In 1995 the Service Standards Initiative became part of the government's newer Quality Services Initiative, but the basic concepts and requirements for service standards remained unchanged.

Government expectations have not been realized
14.25 In June 1993, the Secretary of the Treasury Board established a deadline for the implementation of service standards. The minimum expectation was that departments would have published service standards for all of their major services by the end of March 1994, and that they would publish performance measures against these standards in 1994-95. In February 1995, the government repeated its commitment in Part I of the 1995-96 Estimates, but extended the deadline for implementation ( see Exhibit 14.1 ). It stated that departments would have service standards in place for their major services by the end of 1995.

14.26 In November 1995, in his annual report to Parliament, Strengthening Government Review , the President of the Treasury Board stated that he expected that most departments would have developed and published standards for their most important services by 31 March 1996.

14.27 However, our audit findings indicate that these government expectations have not been realized. Some of these major services are in the early stages of developing service standards, and much more needs to be done. The following sections set out our detailed findings about the government's progress in implementing service standards and about departments' use of performance information to improve service.

Implementation of service standards was incomplete for most services
14.28 According to the Treasury Board, service standards are to be communicated to clients and are to include a description of the service concerned, service pledges, delivery targets, cost of service, and complaint and redress mechanisms. The Board also expects departments to report performance against these standards ( see Exhibit 14.5 ).

14.29 Our findings indicate that, overall, the government's progress in implementing service standards has been slow and its achievements uneven. As of 31 March 1996, none of the 13 services had published service standards that contained all of the required elements. Most had published descriptions and many had made pledges to clients to provide good service. However, only a few had communicated delivery targets and publicized complaint mechanisms to clients. None had communicated performance against targets or costs of service to clients at points of service ( see Exhibit 14.6 ).

14.30 Even leaving aside the requirement to publish, we found that implementation of service standards was still incomplete . Most services had delivery targets, but they were not necessarily based on consultation with clients. Only four services had made an effort to determine the full cost of service. In addition, many services had not developed the necessary systems and procedures to collect consistent and reliable performance data on service quality; nor had they sufficiently organized their complaint mechanisms as a means to improve service.

Delivery Targets

Information on clients' priorities is not systematically collected
14.31 To set meaningful delivery targets, departmental service managers need to determine what is important to clients. Information on clients' priorities is a prerequisite to developing sound service standards and improvement plans. A variety of mechanisms can be used to determine client needs and priorities, such as advisory panels, citizen boards, focus groups and formal surveys.

14.32 Government services have used various client feedback methods and with varying frequency. We noted several examples where the results of client consultation were used to change or improve service. However, only about half the services we audited have collected information on client priorities and their relative importance. Even fewer have assessed their clients' satisfaction with the way each of their priorities is being served. This knowledge is important; there is little point to investing effort in areas where client priority is low and satisfaction high when there may be a much better return in areas of high priority and low satisfaction ( see Exhibit 14.7 ). Such knowledge is also significant in supporting decisions to reduce or reallocate resources.

Many delivery targets but only a few communicated at points of service
14.33 Delivery targets are benchmarks against which the timeliness, accessibility, reliability and accuracy of services are to be measured. They are the most visible and often the most difficult component of service standards to develop and implement. Communicating delivery targets to clients at the point of service is the clearest sign of service managers' commitment to quality. In addition, setting delivery targets is a key management tool for assessing performance and improving service.

14.34 Most of the services we audited have developed some delivery targets . The few that have been communicated to clients tend to focus on timeliness. The Income Security Program promises its clients, in various program pamphlets available at local offices, that they will get their benefit cheques in the last three banking days of each month. The Passport Office has printed turnaround targets in its application forms: five days if the application is made in person and 10 days if made by mail. Consular Services makes turnaround targets available to clients, upon request. At the time of our audit, Employment Insurance had not yet posted its new national turnaround target of 28 days for first cheques, but a few local offices had posted their own standards.

14.35 Experience in both public and private sectors shows that service quality has a number of important dimensions: accessibility, timeliness, accuracy or reliability, courtesy and other tangible matters related to the service environment. The government's "Declaration of Quality Services Principles" promotes these same attributes. We found that, in determining service standards, most services tended to focus on timeliness and accessibility. Accuracy was not as explicit a delivery target, although often it was at least implied.

14.36 Service managers should ensure that delivery targets reflect client priorities.

Few incentives to publish delivery targets
14.37 Delivery targets are expected to be challenging but attainable. Managers saw little incentive for communicating delivery targets to clients. For example, they expressed concerns that in a time of government downsizing they might be unable to meet the published delivery targets or to deal adequately with the resulting complaints, or they might want to first make improvements through re-engineering. Despite these concerns, the Trade-mark Branch has published its performance against standards, even though some stated targets have not been met ( Exhibit 14.12 ).

14.38 In the United Kingdom, executive agencies that deliver services to the public have published standards as part of the Citizen's Charter Initiative. Their standards do not necessarily represent "perfect" service and are often expressed as a proportion of 100 percent. For example, processing agencies set targets for clearance times - that is, the time from initial receipt of an application to the issue of benefits - as a percentage of volume to be cleared within so many days. This allows for some forgiveness in the system, but also gives clients a notion of what to expect. Another U.K. agency set different standards for peak and non-peak periods to reflect realities of government service. In addition, targets are sometimes stated as aims, with a caveat for unforeseen circumstances.

14.39 Private sector organizations regard delivery targets as a key component of their service strategy. However, informing clients about the targets and about actual performance against them is not a common practice for many companies. In this regard, the governments of Canada and some other countries go further than many parts of the private sector. Publication of standards and reporting to clients on performance are seen as vehicles to promote government openness and accountability. Canadians have indicated that they expect greater government transparency.

14.40 The Treasury Board should encourage departments to publish service standards and to report performance against them at points of service.

Performance Measurement

Measures of service performance are not consistently available
14.41 Having relevant and reliable performance information is essential for service managers in their day-to-day work and for periodic planning and evaluation. Performance measurement is a key ingredient in the Service Standards Initiative, as government attempts to make itself more transparent and accountable to Canadians. Service managers need up-to-date performance data to judge the extent to which their organizations are meeting the established standards. This information would also help to demonstrate the positive results that service managers have obtained through streamlining the process or removing red tape.

14.42 We found that some services have developed systems and procedures to measure various aspects of performance, such as output volumes and labour productivity. However, many do not have systems and procedures to produce reliable and consistent measures of service quality, such as counter waiting time, turnaround time, accuracy of replies and client satisfaction.

Cost information is critical for balancing quality and affordability
14.43 Another important piece of information critical to service managers is the cost of service delivery. Cost data are essential in determining the optimal (or affordable) level of service. In 1992 the Clerk of the Privy Council pointed out, in his PS 2000 progress report, that identifying key drivers of cost and trade-offs between cost and service is one of the essential steps in establishing standards. As we have noted, the essence of the Service Standards Initiative is to ensure that government clients receive high-quality and affordable services.

14.44 We found that many departments do not determine the full costs of delivering services, particularly on a per-unit basis. In cases such as Consular Services, the Passport Office and Parks Canada, efforts have been made to determine the cost of service using the full range of applicable costs.

14.45 Costs vary with levels of service. Thus, departments need to know what these financial implications are to make appropriate trade-offs between serving client priorities and delivering what is affordable within budget limitations. We found that few services had conducted such "balancing" exercises. One such example was a study by Human Resources Development Canada that determined the costs of different levels of telephone access for its Employment Insurance clients. Telephone service is an area where such a trade-off exercise could be greatly facilitated by the detailed data automatically generated by the related computer software.

14.46 Several services we audited have introduced measures to improve service through process re-engineering and other initiatives. However, they did not always have adequate information on service and cost to demonstrate the actual results.

14.47 In some departments, budget planning tends to take into account such factors as volume and productivity. However, service standards and performance have not been well integrated into the planning process. There are a few exceptions. For example, Customs indicated to us that the periodic measurement of satisfaction with service, compliance levels and waiting times has recently been taken into consideration in its resource review and shift scheduling. If the use of such performance data in an accountability framework is approved, Customs expects that it will result in greater awareness and more active use of the periodic data collected. We believe that this is also likely to promote a more balanced approach to managing service in relation to not only cost but also risk factors, such as the possibility of errors in detecting non-compliance. Human Resources Development Canada is integrating service standards with productivity measures into its Results-Based Accountability Framework.

14.48 Service managers should collect, analyze and use service and cost performance information as a basis for determining the highest-quality service that can be provided at an affordable cost.

Complaint mechanisms are not well communicated, nor are data analyzed
14.49 Complaint and redress mechanisms give clients a means to resolve their concerns when they feel the government has not met its promised standards of service. Such mechanisms are not only a key feature of service but also an important source of information on performance and improvement. Systematically collecting and analyzing complaints and comments from clients can help service managers to pinpoint system weaknesses, institute remedies and prevent problems from recurring.

14.50 We found that wherever applicable, services inform clients in their program pamphlets about how to appeal unfavourable decisions. Taxation publishes its Problem Resolution Program (a complaint mechanism) in the income tax guides. Customs' program pamphlet tells clients to see a supervisor if they are unhappy with the service. Generally, however, departments are much less clear about exactly where an unhappy client can go to complain about poor service.

14.51 We found that many services do not systematically collect and analyze complaint data. One exception is Taxation, which collects, synthesizes and analyzes complaint data from the regions. Reports of the proposed solution and status are then sent back to the regions. Taxation has made use of client complaints as a learning tool to improve service.

14.52 Service managers should clearly communicate to clients how complaints can be made and how they will be redressed. Service managers should also systematically collect and analyze complaint data and devise methods to prevent mistakes from recurring.

Root-Cause Analysis (The Case of Telephone Services)

Serious accessibility problems in government telephone services
14.53 Our review indicated that the telephone service industry focusses on two key aspects of performance: accessibility to the system and quality of the contact. Accessibility is measured by two aspects: (1) the probability that a caller gets into the telephone system without getting a busy signal and abandoning the call while in the queue; and (2) the length of time he or she has to wait before getting an agent on the line. Quality of the contact includes the accuracy of information clients receive and the interaction with the agent (or the ease of use of the system when the service is automated).

14.54 We found that although the six government telephone operations have not published service standards, several have set internal accessibility targets and measure performance against them. These measures showed that the large government telephone operations we audited had low levels of accessibility ( see Exhibit 14.8 ). For example, Taxation call centres used to have an accessibility target of 70 percent of calls answered on the first attempt, and a waiting-time target of less than 180 seconds on average. In 1995-96 their actual accessibility was 28 percent of all calls (or 23 percent when abandoned calls were included) that did not get a busy signal, although they met the waiting-time target.

14.55 The two smaller government telephone operations (Reference Canada and Canada-Ontario Business Call Centre) had internal targets for accessibility that were comparable with the telephone service industry average, and their performance generally exceeded the targets. ( see photograph )

Quality of telephone contacts is not monitored regularly
14.56 Once callers get through, they also want to obtain good service. There are many consequences of poor-quality contact. Unfriendly service may cause an immediate negative reaction from the client. Inaccurate answers can send clients to the wrong place or lead them to send in an invalid application. This can then lead to client frustration, operational inefficiency, or both, contributing to an overall impression of government inefficiency and inaccessibility. It is therefore important for service managers to set appropriate standards and to monitor regularly the quality of telephone contacts.

14.57 We found that although departments recognize the importance of quality of contact and have aimed to provide courteous service and accurate answers, only Taxation and Statistics Canada (which also provides enquiry services by telephone) had targets for accuracy of answers to their clients and measured the performance against these targets. In these cases, a "mystery shopper" approach was used to measure the accuracy of information that agents gave to clients.

14.58 We noted that Taxation's rate of accuracy of answers has varied between 61 and 79 percent in the last few years, with no apparent upward trend. Taxation did not know the impact of its accuracy rate on Canada's taxation system.

14.59 Silent monitoring is another method used by managers in the telephone service industry to measure and improve quality of telephone contact. Silent monitoring is a technique where a peer, a supervisor or a technical expert monitors the conversations between agents and clients to assess the quality of contact and to identify areas for improvement. Revenue Canada does not use this monitoring technique. The other three large operations, Employment Insurance, Income Security Program and Citizenship and Immigration, stated that they have no objections to silent monitoring, although they do not regularly use the technique.

14.60 We also found that there was little systematic collection and analysis of the nature of clients' calls and complaints. For example, many of the government telephone centres we visited had not kept ongoing logs of the type of calls they receive (an accepted practice in the telephone service industry) and, therefore, did not have the relevant data to determine whether all calls were actually necessary.

Root-cause analysis can help improve service
14.61 The low rate of accessibility we found in the large government telephone operations could be caused by a combination of factors. More systematic analysis of performance data, including client feedback, could help service managers to identify root causes of the problems and devise appropriate remedies to improve the quality of telephone service.

14.62 During our audit of government telephone operations, we identified several potential root causes, such as poor measurement, unnecessary calls (including repeated and misdirected calls), lack of operational efficiency and poor quality of answers. We have also noted a number of possible solutions, such as more systematic analyses of the reasons for calls, greater use of technology and better matching of resources to demands. For more details of our analysis see "More about Government Telephone Services" .

14.63 Measures of accessibility for a telephone system can be obtained easily from the software available with that system. However, Citizenship and Immigration phone centres do not collect these data systematically; data collection practices in the Income Security Program vary among call centres and are reported on a national level only partially. This inhibits the ability of these organizations to analyze the root causes and identify improvements.

14.64 Service managers (including telephone centre managers) should collect and use performance data to carry out systematic root-cause analyses, and devise appropriate remedies for resolving persistent problems of accessibility.

Leadership and Management

14.65 Our review of relevant documents and our discussions with service managers indicated that they had many reasons for not having made more progress toward the government's repeated commitments. The reasons included the public service strike in 1991, government reorganization in 1992, the change of government in 1993 and the subsequent Program Review and associated cutbacks, as well as re-engineering exercises carried out by individual departments.

14.66 As in every endeavour, the failures and successes so far in the implementation of service standards need to be used as lessons for the future. Of course, some of the factors inhibiting progress are beyond the control of individual service managers, but others, as shown below, can be corrected.

Some cultural adjustments will be necessary
14.67 It is important that senior managers buy into the Service Standards Initiative. However, they have had to deal with many other unrelated priorities. The apparent sidelining of the Initiative is evident in the small number of concrete plans and the lack of meaningful responses to the Treasury Board's repeated requests since the early 1990s for departments to report progress in multi-year operational plans.

14.68 Germane to any recent service-related initiative in the federal government has been the recognition that the culture of the organization is a key determinant of success. An important thrust of the Service Standards Initiative is to change the culture of the public service and make it more client-focussed and results-oriented. Such change is long-term in nature and requires sustained leadership from senior management, who must signal the priorities to service managers.

14.69 Deputy ministers need to continue emphasizing their commitment to and support of the Service Standards Initiative, and to integrate service standards into the ongoing departmental management process. It is the responsibility of the deputy minister to provide leadership to establish a culture that is willing to be held accountable for its performance. One such example is the Trade-mark Branch, where delivery targets are included in the Management and Performance Agreement between the Registrar of Trade-marks and the Deputy Minister (see Exhibit 14.12 ).

Departments need to focus on major services
14.70 From the beginning of the current Service Standards Initiative, deputy ministers have been earmarked as the key players. They are responsible for establishing clear standards of service in accordance with the deadlines set by the government.

14.71 Departments will continue to face fiscal restraints, making it difficult for them to focus on service standards unless the Initiative is viewed as a tool to improve service delivery, rather than as an additional task that hinders it . We found that departmental approaches to service standards were not concentrating sufficient effort on major services; where departments did have specific goals, they tended not to follow through.

14.72 Departments need to focus on major services and to ensure that sufficient attention is devoted to the initiative. Deputy ministers need to insist on a realistic appraisal of progress. The senior official in charge of each major service needs to be assigned the responsibility for developing and implementing applicable service standards, and for ensuring that accurate progress reports are given to deputy ministers.

14.73 Deputy ministers should ensure that departments focus efforts on major services and should make senior officials accountable for implementing service standards.

Few service managers have complete implementation plans
14.74 The key steps to implementing service standards are set out in the Treasury Board Guide to the Service Standards Initiative and reflected in our criteria (see About the Audit ). We believe that these steps must be carried out systematically and diligently. We expect that each service manager would develop an implementation plan that identifies these key steps; allocates resources to each task and assigns responsibility for it; establishes milestones for all key steps; and monitors progress against the planned milestones. Spectrum Management's approach gives an example of how good planning helps in the implementation of service standards (see Exhibit 14.13 ).

14.75 However, we found that although many departments have a team or committee set up to implement service standards, many services do not have a plan, or their plan does not identify key steps and establish milestones. The importance of good planning was also confirmed by a Treasury Board-sponsored Statistics Canada survey (see paragraph 14.80), which found that having a written plan is the best indicator of support of service quality.

14.76 In our opinion, the absence of appropriate plans has contributed to the overall lack of achievement in the Service Standards Initiative. Without a plan that identifies steps and assigns responsibilities, some key activities, such as client consultation and development of performance measurement systems, may either be skipped or left partially undone.

14.77 Service managers should develop and follow action plans that include all key features for the implementation of service standards.

Government reporting of progress needs to be improved
14.78 The Treasury Board Secretariat is the central agency responsible for the Service Standards Initiative. Its approach to implementation has been to provide government-wide encouragement by supporting departments in meeting performance objectives, acting as a catalyst to remove constraints, and celebrating innovation and success. During the last few years, the Secretariat has undertaken a range of activities such as bringing the service standards and service quality issues forward to ministers, issuing several series of implementation guides, facilitating interdepartmental networks and emphasizing the need for employee training and participation. Guides issued have clearly presented the quality management approach. ( see photograph )

14.79 Informing the Cabinet and Parliament about the overall progress of the initiative is the responsibility of the Treasury Board, supported by the Secretariat. During the first half of the 1990s, the Secretariat asked departments to provide updates on progress made against government commitments and assessed departmental progress against selected criteria to determine how well each department was doing . By 1995, Secretariat staff were relying on surveys and interviews with departmental officials to gather information about progress.

14.80 In the spring of 1995, on behalf of the Interdepartmental Quality Network and funded by the Treasury Board Secretariat, Statistics Canada conducted a survey to determine the extent of quality management practices in the Canadian public service. Using feedback from managers, the survey concluded that 52.6 percent of units in the public service had client service standards.

14.81 A Treasury Board staff Working Paper on Service Standards, based on interviews conducted in 25 departments during July and August of 1995, concluded, "Two-thirds of departments forecast that by March 31, 1996, they will have developed and published standards for their most important services." It added that considerable work remained to be done, and that strong management and central agency support and encouragement were essential.

14.82 In March 1996, Getting Government Right (a report tabled in Parliament with the 1996-97 Estimates) stated that most departments and agencies had published performance objectives for delivery of government products and services, and that these standards set benchmarks against which to measure the timeliness, accessibility, reliability and accuracy of the services to which Canadians are entitled. We were informed by Treasury Board Secretariat that the report was based on the findings of the Statistics Canada survey and on their own interviews.

14.83 Getting Government Right is the only recent report to Parliament that has mentioned progress in implementing service standards. It suggested that significantly more than half of the major services had published standards. However, our audit findings show that the actual progress is slower than suggested.

14.84 Information for Parliament needs to be relevant, reliable and understandable. The one brief mention of progress does not meet these criteria.

14.85 Treasury Board Secretariat should report clearly to Parliament the government's progress in implementing the Service Standards Initiative.


Sustained effort is required
14.86 The Service Standards Initiative encompasses many key principles that the government is trying to promote in its current renewal of the public service. Our findings demonstrate a significant gap between repeated government commitments made since 1990 and progress to date. Many services began to develop service standards in the early 1990s, but the progress has been slow and results uneven. A few services almost met the 1995 deadline; however, others made efforts that could only be described as piecemeal.

14.87 More specifically, progress in developing and publishing service standards has varied significantly from one service to another. For example, Parks Canada has consulted with its clients in individual national parks, but has yet to develop service standards and has just started work on a national performance measurement system . Some services are more advanced in the process. Customs Border Service, for example, has carried out customer-oriented employee training, consulted with clients, set client-sensitive delivery targets and developed a system to measure performance. However, it has stopped short of publishing its service standards ( see Exhibit 14.14 ). ( see photograph )

14.88 The service standards approach has become an accepted way of doing business in the Trade-mark Branch. It has followed most key steps in implementing service standards, including the most difficult one - publishing performance against targets and acknowledging to clients that actual performance has been below target. Trade-marks has also integrated measures of quality into ongoing management processes ( see Exhibit 14.12 ). The Customs and Trade-marks cases demonstrate the value of service standards.

14.89 In addition, we found that some departmental front-line offices, whether in a telephone centre or at the counter, are making increasing use of technology and other innovations to improve service to clients. For example, several Passport, Tax Service and Employment Insurance offices have installed automatic queue management systems that allow them to inform clients how long their wait may be and to alert management to adjust the number of staff for counter services. These systems record information such as clients' waiting times, time required to serve clients, and volume by time of day, to provide insightful data on client behaviour, for trend analysis, and to improve service to the public. Citizenship said that it has changed regulations and internal practices to allow group testing and to simplify the application process, in order to speed up the processing of citizenship applications. Reference Canada and the Canada-Ontario Business Call Centre use the information provided by automated telephone systems to adjust resources on an ongoing basis to maintain accessibility targets. The Consular Service has deployed a real-time computer application, COSMOS, to enable its missions worldwide to retrieve client service information. ( see photograph )

14.90 However, none of the 13 services has completed the service standards requirements set out by the Treasury Board. Although there is a growing awareness of the basic concepts, which is a prerequisite to action, much remains to be done and sustained efforts will be required. The Treasury Board Secretariat is currently reviewing its organizational structures and activities. This will provide it with the opportunity to examine how it will lead the Quality Service Initiative and speed up the implementation of service standards.

Treasury Board Secretariat's response: We agree that service standards are an important part of improving the quality of services the federal government delivers to Canadians. The delivery of quality services to Canadians underlies all government initiatives and priorities and has the government's full support. We welcome the chapter as supporting the pursuit of the objective of quality services for Canadians.

The dramatic changes occurring in the functions and structures of government, along with resource reductions, have created a challenging environment in which to implement service standards. The transitions occurring in what services are delivered, where, how, and the resources available have affected the initiative's implementation and slowed progress. A quality services approach is regarded as a timely step in assisting departments in meeting deficit reduction targets by focussing available resources on those quality services that are relevant, responsive, accessible and affordable.

The government initiative Focussing on the Client: the Quality Services Initiative (June 1995) put the focus on improving client satisfaction. The impetus provided by this initiative is expected to further strengthen ongoing implementation and refinement of service standards, which are an integral part of the initiative. In addition to service standards, a quality approach also stresses client satisfaction, employee involvement, innovation and the celebration of success. This audit focusses on service standards in a sample of service lines and departments. Therefore, much good work done by departments, with respect to this and other quality elements, is not reported in this chapter.

Some elements of service standards implementation are more difficult to achieve than others. Full costing of government services, for example, contains a number of practical problems, given the many changes being implemented within the government's financial management systems. At present, it is impractical in many cases to expend resources to gather and report on the full cost of delivering a service, in a way that is meaningful to clients. Implementation of this element will be facilitated when the changes to modernize the financial management system, now under way, have been completed. Both public and private sector experts acknowledge the implementation of quality services to be a complex process, often requiring five to seven years to implement meaningfully. As many departments are now in the early stages of this work, performance measurement and monitoring schemes in these departments are necessarily in the developmental stage.

We are pleased with the recognition of good practice examples from departments, such as those of Spectrum Management, Customs Border Services, Trade-mark Branch and the leadership of Public Works and Government Services Canada in promoting direct deposit of government payments. We are also pleased that the report recognizes that Treasury Board Secretariat has provided much valuable guidance, support and assistance to departments, whose responsibility it is to implement this initiative for specific services and programs.

We welcome continued monitoring of the government's progress in implementing service standards and improving the quality of its services, as public attention and accountability are important to the continuous improvement process.

We are committed to continued progress in the implementation of service standards and quality services, and will continue to measure and report on progress. The Treasury Board Secretariat will support departments in their implementation of suggestions made by the Auditor General.

About the Audit


The criteria for our audit were drawn from general principles that are accepted by quality-management professionals and are reflected in guidance provided by the Treasury Board Secretariat. These criteria, shown below, were used to judge how well the selected government services have implemented service standards and improved services. Because the government's Service Standards Initiative requires that standards include the expected key elements ( see Exhibit 14.5 ), we started our audit by assessing whether these requirements have been met.

  • Service line managers have a plan in place for implementing service standards and improving service quality.
  • Service line managers know their business, and consult with clients about their needs, expectations, and levels of satisfaction. They know what is affordable.
  • Managers set client-sensitive service standards.
  • Service standards and performance against them are communicated to clients.
  • Reasons for differences between standards/targets and performance are identified and service adjustments are made.
  • The above initiatives to improve services to the public are integrated into departmental operations and resource allocation.


Our examination involved meetings with service managers and staff and a review of files and documentation on service standards. We visited high-volume centres in Canada's major urban areas to observe how the selected services were delivered and what information on service standards was available to the public. In addition, we examined the role of the central agencies.

Audit Team

Robert Chen
Yves Genest
Gerry Nera
Katherine Rossetti
Frances Smith
Suzanne Therrien
Tom Wileman

For information, please contact Theresa Duk, the responsible auditor or Robert Chen, audit director.