By JOSEPH MURPHY
Special to the Wreckhouse Weekly
ST. JOHN’S — In a report released by the CBC News, St. John’s, on Monday, July 26, Minister of Digital Government and Services NL, Sarah Stoodley, highlighted difficulties with getting appointments and accessing some government services online, while at the same time announcing a number of improvements in the works for the near future. Stoodley “apologized for any long waits, but said it’s part and parcel of recovering from COVID-19”.
An e-mail sent to Krista Dalton, Communications Manager, Government of NL on July 13 specifically queried whether or not services have been impacted by the pandemic. In her response, Dalton wrote, “Motor Vehicle Registration services have been available throughout the pandemic and adjusted accordingly to ensure compliance with public health guidelines. This included increased efforts to raise awareness about our online services (driver’s licence and vehicle registration renewal, change of address, learner’s permit test, driver abstract request) and mail/drop box/email services. While in person appointments are recommended for services not available online, urgent and exceptional circumstances are accommodated through walk-in visits. Appointments can be made online; and adjustments to those appointments (cancelling or rescheduling) can also be made online via the same web page. This appointment system is an ideal means of effectively managing our service requests on a daily basis so that staff can be assigned accordingly in the most efficient manner. Motor Vehicle Registration are working to reduce wait times and to enable a sustainable long term shift to an appointment service model.”
The future program for appointments and services relies substantially on a community broadband network. But the poor quality of rural internet around the province coupled with an average in excess of 14,000 calls per week, Dalton’s response seemed to miss the mark.
“It is estimated that 99 per cent of the province’s population has access to some level of broadband services. This time of year sees an increase in seasonal requirements such as off-road vehicle and trailer registrations, and increased requests for services such as vehicle registration transfers (private sales of second-hand vehicles) and driver road testing. The rapidly growing registration on MyGovNL and the uptake in appointment bookings suggests that customers are using the online options available to them.”
According to CRTC Communications Monitoring Report, as of 2019, only 91.1per cent of NL had access to broadband internet services with 5+ megabytes per second upload. This was the lowest availability and the lowest of quality in Canada at the time. There is no evidence that the province currently enjoys 99 per cent internet coverage.
A particular source of frustration continues to be actually contacting a local MRD Office, like the one in Stephenville. When the call is placed to the local 643-8650, it is then queued with all calls from across the province via the 1-877-636-6867 response line. Often the caller is prompted to leave a call back number, but more frequently, advised that there are “more than normal call volumes” and to call back later.
“In recognition of the varying and unique needs of our customers, Motor Vehicle Registration provides multiple ways for customers to receive their required services. This includes online services, a toll-free customer telephone inquiry service, in-person service via appointment, mail/drop box/email services, and telephone numbers to local office locations throughout the province.”
Meanwhile, a discreet chat with an employee suggested that only a certain number of calls can be queued before the ‘Call back later’ threshold is met. People calling MRD Stephenville from Stephenville can continue to be expected to be queued with everyone else, regardless of physical location.
Stated Dalton, “Motor Vehicle Registration receives a high volume of customer calls at the Contact Centre (1-877-636-6867). Since March 1, 2021 the division received 207,900 calls. At this time of year customer demand is extremely high. Call demand averages approximately 15,000 calls per week with the highest volume of inquiries related to vehicle registrations and transfers. To help facilitate processing times, residents are encouraged to complete transactions available online such as written drivers’ permit testing, address changes, drivers’ licence renewals, vehicle renewals and notices of sale at MyGovNLca. There are currently more than 277,000 users registered for MyGovNL and, in between March 2020 and April 2021, the number of registrations increased by more than 3,000 per cent.”
Dalton is quick to point out that nearly 300,000 people are currently registered users of MyGovNL online services. But that fact does little to address the issues for rural citizens who lack consistent internet or who need an actual employee to talk to for guidance, such as seniors, nor how the improvements in online websites will help dissipate an already overburdened telephone response system.
Great improvements in both areas are needed if Digital NL is to meet their objectives of service delivery in the province. For now, people, especially those in rural areas and those new to the province, can expect difficulty in contacting and conducting business with Motor Registration. An improved website is but a very small step in the right direction.
But, at 15,000 calls per week and only 10 full time employees to serve an entire province, hoping for better internet services will likely have little impact to improve services for rural residents anytime soon.