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The Senate

Motion to Urge Government to Accelerate the Implementation of Digital Solutions that Transform the Public Service Delivery Experience of Canadians--Debate Continued

December 12, 2023

Honourable senators, perhaps I should take a page from Senator Dennis Patterson’s book, but I read a really excited room.

I rise to speak in support of Motion No. 107. Thank you, Senator Colin Deacon, for your calls on the Government of Canada to replace outdated program delivery and information technology systems by urgently accelerating the implementation of user-friendly digital solutions that transform the public service delivery experience of Canadians with a view to reducing administrative time and the financial costs of program delivery.

There are many examples across government programs where service delivery is slow, difficult, expensive and a cumbersome burden on individuals. Two systems where this is readily apparent are the current tax-filing and record-suspension systems. The tax-filing system, although the only system that proved capable of rolling out income supports during the pandemic, requires further improvement. It continues to place the onus on individuals to submit an annual tax return for verification by the Canada Revenue Agency, or CRA, whereas many other Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, or OECD, member countries have moved to forms of automated tax filing. The second is the current record‑suspension system, which, in addition to having four different applications streams, each with their own bureaucratic systems, requires individuals to collect relevant documents from other police and court sources, pay fees and submit complex application documents to have their records suspended.

Both systems put the onus on the individual, which means that system inefficiencies particularly disadvantage those who are most marginalized.

In recent years, the government has taken some steps toward modernizing services and increasing accessibility, including the establishment of the Canadian Digital Service and the implementation of Canada’s Digital Ambition. However, the report of the Parliamentary Budget Officer, or PBO, published in response to this motion underscored that the government has a long way to go before it meets its digital service delivery goals. Despite the admirable efforts the government has made to improve safety, security, reliability and privacy in its services, the PBO found that there is inconsistency in ease of use and access to services.

The government has not been tracking cost savings associated with the digitization of services, either. Because there is no centralized information on the total amounts the government has spent or saved on these initiatives, the PBO could not analyze the expected cost savings compared to what is actually achieved. The PBO also underscored that it is unclear whether the funding meant for digital services transformation initiatives, a total of $1 billion to be spent over seven years, will be sufficient to achieve the government’s goals.

These findings highlight a lack of transparency and accountability on the part of the government.

We should all be asking these questions: What is the funding being used for, and how effectively is it being used? The purpose of the funding is to upgrade the outdated systems that are currently failing to meet the needs of the public. Funding must not be used for the maintenance of existing systems.

Canada’s current tax-filing system is one such system.

Chapter 9 of Budget 2022 was dedicated to tax fairness and effective government. Tax fairness requires that those who are most marginalized be able to access the benefits designed for them within the tax system. Up to 12% of Canadians do not file their taxes every year. Most of these people have low incomes and, had they filed, could have benefited from government rebates and programs like the Canada Child Benefit and the Guaranteed Income Supplement. For example, working-age individuals who did not file their tax returns lost $1.7 billion in benefits in 2015 alone.

The high administrative burden of tax filing reduces the efficacy of these tax expenditures, which are specifically designed to alleviate poverty. How much more efficient could it be if the CRA filed taxes for these individuals?

In this year’s budget, the government announced it would help millions of low-income Canadians to file their taxes by increasing the number of Canadians eligible to file taxes over the phone through the File my Return phone program to 2 million by 2025. The government also promised to have the CRA pilot a new automatic tax-filing service.

Moving forward with automatic tax filing is a crucial step in promoting tax fairness. Automatic tax filing is a process by which tax authorities complete a tax return for an individual using on-file information, then provide the return to the individuals to update or correct. The government’s impact assessment of this measure found that single, childless individuals will particularly benefit. These individuals currently have lower tax-filing rates than those with children, generally have lower incomes and account for the vast majority of those on provincial and territorial income assistance.

Experts in tax fairness have long called for this measure to be implemented. The current system, whereby individuals compile and submit returns for CRA to verify, is outdated and inefficient, forcing marginalized individuals to shoulder a significant administrative burden. Many countries have done away with this system, opting instead for automated forms of tax filing. These include Slovenia, Norway, Denmark, Finland, Chile, Portugal, New Zealand and Australia.

The government’s current reliance on the CRA to deliver income-tested benefits to individuals based on tax return information means that a lack of automatic filing prevents people from getting essential benefits to which they are entitled. Moving forward with automatic filing is a crucial step toward modernizing public service delivery and aligns with the goals of Motion No. 107. This step could also enable more streamlined, efficient and effective investment of tax dollars in income supports that will further assist poverty alleviation and income redistribution efforts.

Honourable senators, as you might have noticed, I am keen to see Canada implement a national guaranteed livable basic income program. Motion No. 107 establishes systems that would facilitate the sort of program envisioned by Bill S-233, which would require the government to examine options to develop a framework for the implementation of a guaranteed livable basic income.

So, of course, I like that.

The other system in need of updating that I would like to discuss is the criminal records system. In 2018, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security called unanimously across party lines for the examination of an automated expiry system. Today, we are still waiting for one, with Canada’s first automated expiry system — restricted to drug possession records only — set to be implemented by November 2024.

The Parole Board of Canada has clearly identified that the obstacle to implementation is a technological one. In 1995, the cost of applying for record relief was $50. That rose to $150 in 2010, $630 in 2012 and up to $657.77 in 2021. Although this fee was reduced to $50 as of January 1, 2022, complex application processes, including hidden fees, keep the record-suspension system inaccessible for far too many.

According to consultations conducted by the Parole Board of Canada, 63% of respondents found that the current record‑suspension application process hinders accessibility to the program. Many said it represented further punishment for those who have already been held accountable for their actions. Punishment, in this case, takes the form of discrimination in employment, housing, educational and volunteer opportunities. Those who finish serving their time often struggle to rejoin society, much less integrate into it, because of the barriers posed by criminal records and criminal record checks.

The number of criminal record checks that people experience is increasing by approximately 7% per year, exacerbating the negative impacts of living with a criminal record, particularly for racialized individuals. Three in five Toronto employers now require police background checks for all new employees.

In spite of claims that criminal records increase public safety, the data indicates that after a few years crime-free, those with previous criminal records are no more likely than others to be criminalized again.

Homelessness increases the likelihood of future incarceration, and incarceration increases the likelihood of homelessness, in part due to the stigma of criminal records.

Operating outdated record-suspension systems perpetuates harm to individuals and to their communities and does not promote public safety. Administrative inefficiencies are needlessly hindering individuals in their ability to make a better life for themselves. In case you’re not aware, of the 3.8 million Canadians with a criminal record, 9 out of 10 do not have a pardon or a record suspension.

What could be done to remedy this administrative burden and promote fairness in the criminal legal system?

The RCMP CPIC database could serve as the centralized record system required to support automated records expiry without the burden of the cost and administrative challenge of the current application process.

Implementation of non-application-based record expiry is within Canada’s technological reach. Countries like the U.K., France, Germany and New Zealand have all implemented automatic record expiry.

In addition, Canada already has this type of record expiry as part of our youth criminal records management system.

This is the reason for Bill S-212, which, as you also know, is currently not being permitted to advance since its passage at the Legal Committee. As we await third reading, and, hopefully, passage of the bill, we await a system aimed at reducing racism, inequality and inaccessibility in the current record suspension program by removing unnecessary obstacles to rehabilitation and community integration. The changes made by Bill S-212 would alleviate the burden placed on individuals who currently shoulder the costly and onerous application process. Record relief should not be a matter of privilege accessible only to the most well resourced.

The outdated record suspension process must be overhauled as part of the government’s overall mission to modernize service delivery systems and accelerate the implementation of user‑friendly digital solutions. These goals are compatible with the goals of Motion No. 107. As Senator Deacon made clear, success depends on prioritizing best practices over past practices and enabling legislative regulatory and policy changes to ensure government services meet people’s needs. Replacing outdated program delivery is important not only for increasing efficiency and reducing costs, but also for ensuring people have timely access to much-needed resources.

In terms of service delivery, Canada is a decade behind many other countries. The U.K. introduced its Government Digital Service in 2011, New Zealand established the digital transformation team in 2013 and the United States established the U.S. Digital Service in 2014, all of which seek to improve the efficiency and user-friendly provision of its service delivery.

In the United Nations E-Government Survey 2022, Canada ranked number 32 out of 33 countries on the maturity level of digital government strategies. This ranking was not always so low but has declined dramatically in the last 10 years. Over this last decade, we have seen significant technological advancements, and, as highlighted by Senator Deacon, the Auditor General and the Parliamentary Budget Officer, not to mention the government itself as evidenced by its budgetary aspirations, Canada must act now in order to re-establish its digital credibility.

As Canada falls behind, people will continue to fall through the cracks, particularly those most marginalized. It is about time that Canada joins the global movement toward updating outdated service delivery systems.

I look forward to the undoubted benefits and advantages such efforts will yield, in particular when it comes to tax filing and criminal record reforms.

Thank you for your leadership, Senator Deacon, and thank you, colleagues, for supporting this important initiative. Meegwetch. Thank you.

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