Better with age

Timing is everything. The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp.'s recent experience underscores that notion. The congressionally chartered agency known as PBGC insures 31,000 private pension plans covering more than 40 million workers and retirees. Its services are funded through premium payments. But plan administrators told PBGC officials that they would rather make payments and file paperwork online.

The agency's need for more online options intensified with the maturation of Web services, an open standards version of distributed computing. PBGC officials chose SRA International Inc., an integrator in Fairfax, Va., to develop a Web services-based premium filing solution. The result is My Plan Administration Account (My PAA), an e-government initiative launched in February.

Jim Whittaker, vice president of SRA's Strategic Technology Services Group, said Web services only recently became practical to deploy in applications such as My PAA. Not long ago, the benefits of Web services were described largely in theoretical terms.

"I would say that the technology has enabled this type of development for perhaps the past year or so," Whittaker said. "It's still exciting. We put [Web services] into use and produced a tangible product that works."

Organizations such as PBGC are attracted to Web services for several reasons. Web services are based on open standards, so they are cheaper to implement than integration schemes based on a vendor's technology. Because of the open standards, buyers have fewer worries about being inextricably committed to a single vendor's products. The widespread acceptance of Web services' core protocols makes the approach an increasingly popular platform.

For PBGC, the Web services-based system is an important customer-satisfaction tool. "PBGC's premium filers told us, through customer-service surveys, that they wanted online filing and services," according to agency officials in an e-mail response to questions.

The agency also benefits from online filing. "The submission of more accurate premium data results in improvements throughout the entire premium-filing process," officials said.

Filing online

In PBGC's traditional premium-filing process, pension plan administrators submit several paper forms by mail. Form 1, for example, is the annual premium-payment form. Payments are often made by check. agency officials handle the paperwork.

"In the past, this work was done primarily manually," Whittaker said.

But PBGC officials now offer an online filing option through My PAA. The system consolidates the agency's four most important forms into a filing wizard, which guides plan administrators through the applicable forms, said Karen Holloway, a senior principal at SRA. My PAA's electronic payment feature allows users to pay premiums with a credit card, Internet check or Automated Clearing House payment. Filings and payments are submitted to a secure PBGC Web site. Secure Sockets Layer technology and encryption protect the data.

"Electronic payment is a real value-added feature, rather than a situation where [pension plan administrators] are filing information online and writing a check for the mail," Whittaker said.

Web services power the automated filing system. My PAA's components were developed with Microsoft Corp.'s .NET, using such Web-services standards as Extensible Markup Language and Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP). Core components include an authentication Web service, which helps administrators establish My PAA accounts, and a premium filing Web service, which takes data from the filing wizard and pushes it to the appropriate PBGC system.

Although My PAA's public interface uses .NET, other parts of the system employ Java, which provides the foundation for the systems integration tier of the agency's Web architecture. Java-based solutions integrate My PAA data with PBGC's premium-

accounting system, document management system and external banking network, according to SRA officials.

The system's developers, meanwhile, created a Java client for the administrators' interface. The agency's financial managers use it to track the number and types of filings and, in general, to get a sense of who uses the system, Holloway said. In addition, account requests that fail to make it through the authentication Web service, because of inaccurate data, for example, show up in the administrators' interface for manual processing.

Mixing .NET and Web services is "becoming more and more common," said Jason Bloomberg, senior analyst at ZapThink LLC, a market research firm that tracks Web services. "One advantage of Web services is that you get that interoperability."

Holloway didn't dispute that point. She said working with different technologies was SRA's toughest technical challenge when developing My PAA.

"We had to quickly craft a systems architecture and develop a solution using disparate technologies such as .NET and Java, MS Windows 2000 Server and Unix platforms, batch processes and existing document management system assets," she said.

Early impact

Since My PAA's debut last winter, pension plan administrators have electronically submitted 12 premium filings and payments totaling $770,000, according to PBGC officials. Those numbers represent a fraction of the agency's business activity. In 2003, revenue from premiums totaled about $973 million.

"Many [pension] plans probably don't know about it yet," Whittaker said.

PBGC officials have been working to get the word out, however. My PAA was presented in March at the annual Enrolled Actuaries Meeting, where officials distributed a demonstration CD. John Ludecke, a senior principal at SRA, cited plans for additional programs to make practitioners aware of the system and its capabilities.

PBGC officials said they are "looking forward to receiving more electronic filings in October, PBGC's 'peak' filing month for premiums."

As they do more business electronically, the benefits of the online service are expected to grow. Whittaker said My PAA will reduce PBGC's data-entry workload and the time it takes to manually process forms as well as improve data quality.

"PBGC's computer records for the pension plan will be more accurate, which will contribute to our sending more accurate and timely notices and responses to our customers," agency officials said. That will reduce workload because employees will spend less time fixing filing errors.

Plan administrators benefit, too. In addition to easier filing, My PAA also lets authorized individuals share electronic access to filings, which eliminates the exchange of papers. For example, some PBGC forms need to be certified by a third-party actuary. My PAA permits this routing to take place electronically, Holloway said.

Practitioners also can use the system to "track the status of each plan's premium filing and view each plan's historical filing data," agency officials noted.

PBGC's contribution to e-government shows that agencies are ready to trust important business processes to Web services, Whittaker said, adding that at least in PBGC's case, Web services have started to have a real-world impact.

"The thing we are most proud of is we've created a real service to the citizen," he said.

Moore is a freelance writer based in Syracuse, N.Y.

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