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Ethnographic Project focused on the Tax Filing Experiences of the Homeless and Housing Insecure

The CRA undertook an ethnographic project focused on the tax filing experiences of the homeless and housing insecure. Researchers worked directly with persons from these populations to gain insight into barriers to accessing tax benefits. The project will improve services to vulnerable Canadians to enhance their standard of living, and underscores the value of innovative qualitative research.

Innovation Summary

Innovation Overview

Filing a personal tax return provides low-income Canadians with the opportunity to increase their finances by accessing a range of federal and provincial tax credits and benefits. This is especially important for vulnerable populations, such as individuals experiencing homelessness or those who are at risk of homelessness. Despite the economic advantages of tax filing, there are some Canadians who do not file due to a range of barriers, from the complexity of the tax system to the lack of awareness of available tax benefits, to the difficulty assembling tax documentation. The CRA is responsible for ensuring that Canadians are able to access the tax benefits they are entitled to. One initiative that supports this priority is the Community Volunteer Income Tax Program (CVITP), which is a partnership between the CRA and community organizations across Canada to provide free tax preparation services for individuals and families who have simple tax situations and a modest income.

The CVITP serves a diverse range of Canadians including seniors, Indigenous people, youth, newcomers, and people with disabilities. Given the broad spectrum of clientele who access the CVITP, it can be challenging to understand the needs of specific groups. This is particularly true of the homeless and housing insecure, for whom quantitative tax data is lacking. In order to fill these gaps, the CRA undertook an innovative project focused on understanding the needs and experiences of these individuals with the ultimate goal of improving their access to tax benefits. In particular, the research sought to:

• develop insight into the homeless and housing insecure populations who use the CVITP, or are potential users, to better understand the barriers they face in filing taxes and accessing tax benefits.

• illuminate potential directions for improving service and outreach to vulnerable populations.

The project was undertaken by two researchers from the CRA’s Innovation Lab in partnership with representatives from program areas and with the cooperation of social services agencies (such as emergency shelters and community health centers) hosting CVITP clinics. The field research was undertaken during March and April 2017 to coincide with the tax filing season and took place in CVITP clinics in Ottawa, Canada. Researchers employed ethnographic methods (such as interviewing and participant observation) in their engagement with persons experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity, social services agency staff, and CVITP volunteers, so as to elicit their experiences with tax filing and barriers to accessing tax benefits.

Ethnography is a qualitative research approach that entails collecting detailed, specific data about people and their everyday lives. It uses small-scale investigations to obtain rich, granular data that uncovers underlying meanings and patterns behind people’s words and actions. This methodology relies heavily on immersion in the field, participation, observation, and semi-structured interviewing so to allow interviewees to prioritize their issues. Ethnographic tools are not typically used in tax administrations which often focus instead on data analytics and behavioral economics techniques. This project is poised to help the CRA understand how the CVITP is helping ensure that homeless and housing-insecure Canadians are able to access the tax benefits they are entitled to.

In addition, this project has the potential to contribute to re-thinking the way the CRA delivers services to some of the most vulnerable Canadians by identifying the barriers these particular populations may face when filing taxes. The final report is expected for fall 2017.

Innovation Description

What Makes Your Project Innovative?

This project involved the use of an innovative research method, ethnography, to better understand the tax filer experience. Although the use of ethnography is common in social sciences, such as anthropology, it has only recently been used in government and the private sector as a method for uncovering detailed information that is contextually situated. Ethnography is a qualitative research approach that entails collecting detailed, specific data about people and their everyday lives. It uses small-scale investigations to search for the underlying meanings and patterns behind people’s actions. This methodology relies heavily on immersion in the field, participation, observation, and semi-structured interviewing. These methods allow the researcher to gain access to the “insider” perspective.

Other qualitative methods, such as surveys and focus groups, while possessing strengths of their own, are rarely able to capture fine-grained naturalistic details in context the way that ethnography does. The use of this type of method provides the CRA with first-person accounts that complement traditional data holdings (such as quantitative data) and in doing so, builds a more comprehensive view of the experiences and service expectations of Canadian taxpayers. To the best of our understanding, this project represents the first time that this type of ethnographic research has been undertaken within the Government of Canada itself. Previous qualitative research undertaken by government departments and agencies has been contracted externally due to the lack of in-house expertise.

While this approach has its advantages, its success depends heavily on outside researchers grasping the potentially unfamiliar subject matter. Building this capacity internally with CRA employees who possess extensive expertise in ethnography resulted in the project team being more informed and focused going into the research. This approach has proven successful, with other areas within the CRA, as well as other government departments interested in undertaking this type of research, having sought out the expertise and advice of the project team for their own initiatives.

What is the current status of your innovation?

Following the success of an ethnographic research pilot project undertaken by the CRA and researchers from the University of Toronto in 2016 focused on the barriers faced by small businesses in complying with their tax obligations, the CRA’s Innovation Lab decided to build its capacity to engage in this sort of qualitative research in house. As a result, the Lab hired two PhD candidates in ethnography to lead future projects. Concurrently, in the 2016 federal budget, the Government of Canada announced a renewed focus on improved client services and helping Canadians receiving the tax benefits they are entitled to, particularly for lower-income earners including seniors, Indigenous people, and people with disabilities. Though an important objective, improving outreach to these groups requires a real understanding of their needs, which can be difficult to attain using traditional tools like surveys and focus groups.

Seeing a possibility to use an innovative approach to address a longstanding administrative challenge, the CRA’s Innovation Lab proposed to conduct an ethnographic project focused on the experience of a particularly vulnerable population in filing taxes and accessing tax benefits. Working in collaboration with program officials from the CVITP (which is a key contact point for vulnerable Canadians), the decision was made to examine the homeless and housing-insecure populations, and importantly, to speak directly to individuals experiencing or at risk of experiencing homelessness. After agreements were established with social services agencies to act as research sites (see question 10), researchers used a combination of participant observation and interviewing to obtain detailed information from the 50 participants in the project. Interviews ranged from brief exchanges to lengthy, in-depth interviews, anywhere from 5 minutes to an hour or more.

Some of these interviews were audio recorded, with the consent of the participant, and for some, the researchers took handwritten notes. The researchers also undertook participant observation in tax clinics and in shelters and programs that serve the target populations, spending time interacting casually with clinic and shelter clients and observing the social dynamics and everyday practices within these spaces and taking extensive notes on their observations. A research report for the project is being drafted. Once the report is finalized, it will be distributed throughout the organization. The final report is expected for fall 2017.

Innovation Development

Collaborations & Partnerships

The project team collaborated internally with CVITP program officials to identify the target populations and develop the research objectives of the project. These discussions were held so as to ensure that the project aligned with the needs of the program area and research findings could potentially be leveraged to improve the initiative. Once the research focus was established, employees from the project team socialized the proposal with a local homelessness alliance to solicit potential partner organizations and gather feedback on how to approach research in the homeless and housing-insecure communities. Over the course of several months, the project team established agreements with various homeless shelters and social services agencies that hosted CVITP clinics to act as research sites.

Users, Stakeholders & Beneficiaries

Researchers undertook participant observation in CVITP clinics and in shelters and programs that serve the target population, spending time interacting casually with tax clinic and shelter clients and observing the social dynamics and everyday practices within these spaces. In addition, researchers completed one-on-one interviews with over 40 persons experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity to directly solicit their experiences with tax filing and accessing tax benefits.

Social services agency staff and CVITP volunteers who prepared clients taxes were also interviewed to gain their perspective on the program as well as their knowledge of barriers to tax filing for vulnerable populations. The conclusions of this project will, therefore, be derived directly from the input provided by research participants. Further, participating community organizations will be provided with the research findings which may, in turn, inform their internal practices and service delivery.

Innovation Reflections

Results, Outcomes & Impacts

A research report for the project is being drafted. Once major themes have been identified, they will be translated into implications for the CRA, with the result being practical insights that will potentially inform how the CRA can improve services and outreach to vulnerable populations.

Challenges and Failures

Given the novelty of ethnographic research within the CRA, the project team encountered challenges related to privacy, confidentiality and ethical considerations of the project design. Government of Canada privacy rules, though providing vital safeguards, present difficulties in conducting this type of research. These challenges were addressed through consulting with legal and privacy experts to ensure that the data collection methods (such as interviewing and participant observation) along with the type of taxpayer data collected adhered to the Government of Canada privacy legislation. Further, the two researchers for the project had previous experience conducting this type of sensitive research and had completed the Government of Canada training concerning ethical research.

Conditions for Success

For these types of projects to be successful, it is important for an organization to be committed to fostering a work environment where innovation, collaboration, and excellence are integrated into business activities at all levels. In addition, it is imperative to have employees with diverse backgrounds and specialized knowledge. Finally, organizations need to be willing to take smart risks and to accept that while not all innovative projects will be successful insightful data can still be gained from unsuccessful projects. Collectively, these were the driving forces behind the creation of CRA’s Innovation Lab, which undertook this and other innovative projects—a small group of employees with varied skill sets working collaboratively to tackle complex problems and find solutions that are then implemented in program delivery.


This project indicates that ethnographic research is a promising new client-centric tool for governments to gain insights into people’s behavior that could be valuable to the strategic priorities of advancing innovation and improving services to citizens. This method is applicable to governments that want to know more about how services are received on the ground and any issues that their clients face in accessing government programs. The direct client input solicited through this method provides the foundation for other approaches such as user experience testing, behavioral economics, and data analytics, which together build a comprehensive picture of client needs and experiences.

Lessons Learned

Implementing innovative techniques in government is both an adventure and a compromise. Innovators must be prepared to encounter obstacles, including some that may not be foreseen, before embarking on such projects. They must also accept that these techniques may need to be adapted to work in a public sector context, and therefore may not be as “pure” as in academia. There is great scope to undertake an innovation in government, as long as one is mindful to acknowledge and address the limitations. Additionally, given the emphasis on data analytics in government, innovators should bear in mind that qualitative methods providing data on the personal interactions between clients and government services are a complementary and often richly insightful form of data.

Year: 2017
Level of Government: National/Federal government


  • Evaluation - understanding whether the innovative initiative has delivered what was needed

Innovation provided by:

Date Published:

24 May 2017

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