By Daniel Jackson and Jennifer Matthews

Ever try to reach the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction on their central phone line? At TAPS we hear all the time from people who have waited for an hour on hold before being able to speak to a worker or, worse, they have waited for an hour on hold only for the line to be dropped without having spoken to a worker at all. Once a person reaches a worker, they may be rushed through the call and their issues not thoroughly addressed.

On April 17, the BC Office of the Ombudsperson released a special report, “Holding Pattern: Call Wait Times for Income and Disability Assistance,” that documents the findings of their investigation into the challenges people face when trying to access Ministry services by phone, including excessive wait times, call disconnections, Ministry staff rushing them through the call, and the Ministry failing to return calls. The Ministry’s “service delivery model” is focused almost entirely on the phone line—many clients who try to get  service in person are turned away, and told to call the phone line.

“Holding Pattern” brings attention to the negative experiences our clients consistently have when trying to access services from the Ministry. The report also notes several instances where people were given wrong or contradictory information by Ministry workers or were treated so poorly by Ministry staff that they were reduced to tears. That this would happen even once is problematic, but at TAPS we hear these stories every day, and simply reducing wait times will not fix this.

The report makes a number of recommendations with the aim of resolving (at least in part) service delivery issues identified in the Ombudsperson’s investigation, including that the Ministry hire additional staff to answer phones, phase out “call sweeping” strategies (limiting calls to under five minutes during periods of high volume), and phase out their practice of resolving only one issue per call.

While these recommendations, all of which have been accepted by the Ministry, represent an important first step in addressing systemic barriers to people accessing services provided by the Ministry, we believe that they only scratch the surface of service delivery failures at the Ministry.

TAPS is calling for a broad-based overhauling of the Ministry’s service delivery model and a fundamental cultural shift to get to the root of service delivery issues. Ministry services need to be premised on respect and dignity, and be provided in a variety of ways, including meaningful in-person options, to meet the diverse needs of people who require them. This will require a significant reduction in the legal barriers to assistance, and a shift away from the overarching “gatekeeper” mentality.

While change comes slowly to bureaucracy, this report demonstrates that the Office of the Ombudsperson is listening. We hope the Ombudsperson will continue to look proactively into systemic injustices and access issues at the Ministry, in addition to addressing individual complaints.

We encourage readers who have been treated disrespectfully by Ministry staff to raise the issue with Ministry supervisors and the Office of the Ombudsperson. TAPS’ income assistance advocates are also available to help.