National News

Feds robocall themselves, hope nobody answers

By Dean Beeby, The Canadian Press

OTTAWA - The federal government has been running a massive robocall campaign out of Ottawa, dialling its own offices and hoping no one answers.

The objective? Ferret out and cancel the thousands of unused telephone lines that cost taxpayers millions each year.

So far, the robocalls have found at least 8,000 of them.

The project over the last year was to locate government lines that no one ever picks up, whether because of long-ago workforce downsizing, an office move or other reasons.

But Shared Services Canada, the agency in charge, has no master list of orphan telephone numbers for its 43 client departments, who are often sloppy about keeping track.

So it offered an auto-dialler system to the RCMP, Health Canada, Treasury Board and other big departments that allows them to ring their own office numbers to find out whether a lowly bureaucrat actually lifts the receiver at the other end.

So far, there's been no answer at 8,000 desktop telephones, which puts them on a watch list.

The agency can then use another automated system to help verify whether each inactive line is permanently idle. The system actively monitors any outgoing calls from these suspect lines, and sends a report to Shared Services Canada alerting officials if the line is in use after all.

Documents detailing the line-cancellation project were obtained by The Canadian Press through the Access to Information Act.

As of March 2012, there were 295,000 so-called Centrex telephone lines provided by Bell Canada to federal government departments and agencies in Ontario and Quebec, where the vast majority of public servants work.

Shared Services Canada is working to get rid of as many of these lines as possible, with the goal of reducing the federal telephone bill by $28.8 million by 2015.

An estimated 50,000 lines are to be dumped over three years by moving to Internet-based voice calls, known as voice-over-Internet protocol or VoIP.

And other bureaucrats are being moved to cell phones from land lines in a "cut-the-cord" program designed to eliminate another 60,000 Centrex lines, though take-up has been much slower than planned as departments raise security concerns.

But a large chunk of the planned savings will come from simply eliminating waste, that is, purging all desktop phone lines that may have lain dormant and forgotten for years.

Shared Services Canada initially set out to find 10,000 orphan lines in 2013-2014 but bumped the target to 23,000 to make up for the slow, reluctant migration to cell phones.

The agency has missed that higher target, eliminating 16,000 idle lines over the last fiscal year.

The planned reduction in the overall number of Bell Centrex lines has also hit a snag, with a total of only 22,000 disappearing, to 273,000 as of March this year. The plan has been to eliminate 120,000 lines by next year.

Part of the problem is that as Shared Services Canada works to cut desktop lines, some agencies are assiduously adding them. Canada Revenue Agency signed up for 3,000 new lines last year alone.

"Some partners have introduced new lines in areas where they are the only viable and cost-effective option available," said Antoine Ouellon, a spokesperson for Shared Services, created in 2011 to rationalize the bureaucracy's balkanized and chaotic data, email and telecommunication services.

The complex project to identify unused lines has also been labour intensive, with technicians visiting more than 32 work sites to physically audit some 30,000 Centrex lines.

Despite setbacks, the agency says the project to rationalize telephone services is still on track to cut millions from the Bell Canada bill.

"SSC's savings target of $13.8 million for fiscal year 2013-2014 for this initiative has been achieved," said Ouellon.

"This initiative is expected to generate $28.8 million in ongoing annual savings by 2015 for Canadian taxpayers."

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