by SUSAN MANN
Agricorp’s plan to focus on excellent customer service is a step in the right direction, says Jeff Davis of the Ontario Corn Producers’ Association.
“I would hope that (Ontario Agriculture Minister Leona Dombrowsky) would give them the tools necessary to improve the service,” he adds, noting corn producers believe computer upgrades should be the provincial agency’s top priority to hone service to farmers.
Last week, Dombrowsky affirmed Agricorp would continue to deliver farm income assistance programs in Ontario. The decision is based on an Auditor General value-for-money audit sparked by farmers complaining about Agricorp’s service and program delivery. The report was completed in July but Dombrowsky refrained from making a decision on how to proceed until farmers had a chance to comment on the report’s findings. Nineteen responded.
She says the government will work with the agency on a renewal strategy that focuses on excellent customer service. Quicker turnaround times on AgriStability application forms and faster responses at the call centre are targeted improvements.
Leo Guilbeault, chair of the Ontario Soybean Growers board, says they’re looking forward to the improvements. But “we’ll have to wait and see how those changes affect the performance of Agricorp.”
He says Agricorp should focus on delivering programs faster, but recognizes that problems haven’t been entirely the agency’s fault. “If you look at some of the federal programs that are administered through Agricorp a lot of them are cumbersome and need some new computer programs. That takes time.”
Computer upgrades should improve the speed of program delivery, he adds. Agricorp should also “cut down on the paperwork and make it more simplified for the farmers to get in and follow the programs.” One improvement Guilbeault has already noticed is reduced wait times at the call centre.
Agricorp is already making changes, says Randy Jackiw, Agricorp CEO. For example, the agency has done “aggressive cross training” with staffers so they’re more familiar with all programs it delivers. “This year, the wait times in the call centre have been cut more than one-half from the same time last year,” he says, attributing the improvement to staff training and a policy to connect farmers with the person they need as quickly as possible.
Changes have also been made to how the AgriStability files are streamed, he says. Straightforward files go in one stream, while files that need some checking go into another and complex files go to a more specialized team.
With 75 per cent of the 2007 applications completed, “we’re about 25 per cent ahead of where we were last year (at this time),” he says.
OMAFRA spokesman Brent Ross says those who offered feedback on the audit’s findings supported using Agricorp to deliver business risk management programs — with improvements to customer service, program delivery and timeliness.
They didn’t agree with Agricorp’s practice of charging interest on outstanding payments. They also objected to the use of collection agencies for overdue accounts and requiring agents to complete application forms. (Currently farmers in Ontario don’t have to use agents but in Quebec it’s mandatory). BF