Engaging with businesses in unprecedented ways

Jennifer Clark works with the Consultations and Stakeholder Engagement (CSE) team at the Canada Revenue Agency. When the world shut down because of Covid-19, Canadian businesses, charities, and non-profits needed new and complicated information, urgently, and the CSE team rose to that challenge.

The team normally supports CRA branches in engaging stakeholder organizations and individuals to make sure CRA programs and services are best positioned to serve Canadians. But when the government started introducing economic measures to help Canadians and businesses survive the pandemic, such as the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS) and the Canada Recovery Hiring Program (CRHP), Jennifer’s team pivoted to figure out how Agency employees could start interacting with thousands of businesses directly.

“In April 2020 we started hosting sessions to help businesses apply for CEWS and to ask live questions,” says Jennifer. “We’ve been doing these sessions regularly throughout the pandemic, most recently for CRHP. Small businesses usually don’t engage with the CRA like this – if they need to talk to someone they call the Business Enquiries Line and talk to an agent. These sessions have them interacting directly with CRA experts on the various COVID fiscal measures. People were blown away by the Agency’s willingness to be available and accessible.”

In the beginning, the sessions were conference calls with hundreds of participants asking their questions. CRA subject matter experts would open with important details about the COVID fiscal measure such as how to apply, and then answer participant questions. Eventually, the sessions covered all of the major COVID measures and evolved to video conference with a calculator demonstration.

The CRA took the questions from every session and sent them across the Agency so they could be used to help call centre agents deal with questions coming in on the phone lines, to allow the regions to engage regional stakeholders, and to make information on the web site clearer and more helpful. 

“The sessions got better each time,” says Jennifer. “They were on a grander scale than anything we’ve done before, in terms of reaching so many Canadians and having so many people from across the Agency jumping in and helping out wherever they were needed. We had people in these sessions who needed help NOW. They didn’t have time to wait and we knew that. They say that business isn’t personal but this absolutely was personal… these were actual people, lying awake at night, trying to figure out how to keep their businesses alive. We all worked tirelessly, above and beyond our normal work day, because we knew we were working to help save the local business down the street.”

The reach of these sessions has been remarkable. To date, the CRA and national stakeholders have hosted a total of 94 national sessions with over 29,000 participants with help from 11 different stakeholder organizations and many other government departments.

“We are still organizing sessions, to this day,” says Jennifer. “With another unusual tax season coming up, the CRA really is trying to ‘make good’ on its commitment of doing everything it can to support people during this time. As long as people need this support we will do everything we can to help them – it’s a marathon, not a sprint, as they say, and we have so many reasons to keep going.”

This story first appeared as part of a series to celebrate Small Business Week, 2021. It marks a time when small and medium businesses fought so hard to manage the circumstances of the pandemic, and the employees of the Canada Revenue Agency came together to deliver the tools and services that would help these businesses during these challenging times.

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