NFC modernizes retirement savings system

The Agriculture Department's National Finance Center next month will launch an imaging system as the first step in an effort to modernize the system that processes the government's $82 billion retirement savings plan. NFC maintains the records and accounts of federal employees participating in the

The Agriculture Department's National Finance Center next month will launch an imaging system as the first step in an effort to modernize the system that processes the government's $82 billion retirement savings plan.

NFC maintains the records and accounts of federal employees participating in the government's Thrift Savings Plan, a 401(k)-type retirement plan similar to those offered by the private sector. However, the computer system that administers the TSP is about 12 years old and in desperate need of an upgrade. The Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board, which manages the TSP, decided about two years ago to revamp the system, which is located at NFC in New Orleans.

"We wanted to make it more consistent with commercial plans," said Ed McManus, project director of the TSP system conversion and Year 2000 project manager at NFC. "We wanted a more modern system based on client/server architecture," he said.

Currently, the TSP operates only on a mainframe and is a cash-based accounting system, whereas similar commercial systems are usually unit-based. NFC plans to build an entirely new system by next May. In the meantime, NFC plans on Oct. 14 to go live with an imaging system that will scan and store the huge volume of documents, such as loan applications, interfund transfer requests and fund withdrawal requests, that are related to an employee's account.

"Now, we're storing the documents on microfilm, which requires us to record the number associated with every document," McManus said. "It also requires large amounts of storage space, and the records must be kept at a certain temperature."

Imaging will replace microfilm and will enable NFC to use optical storage technology to store the document images, which eventually will save time, money and space, McManus said. NFC is conducting an analysis to determine just how much money it can save.

"We'll be able to retrieve those documents online and do data entry from those documents if we want," McManus said. "We're going to have an electronic capability that didn't exist before."

Payroll offices that feed into the TSP system will have access to electronic reporting capabilities they did not have before. Eventually, NFC will electronically distribute the documents among its clerical employees.

American Management Systems Inc. is the integrator on the TSP project, and FileNet Corp. will provide the basic imaging software. The new system will support daily updates of participants' investment accounts, said Harry Barschdorf, vice president in charge of American Management Systems' civilian agency consulting and systems business. Currently, those updates are done monthly. "One of the key purposes of this project is to implement a modern system that will enable the government's 401(k) system to operate similar to those in the private sector," Barschdorf said. "The government would like to take advantage of new technology...to support participants in a better way."

The system architecture will take advantage of the power of mainframe transaction processing and the flexibility of client/server architecture, he added. The intent of the new system is to enable users to move investments from one account to another and receive statements over the Internet. NFC also will offer additional funds in which users can choose to invest.

Moving from microfiche to electronic format is significant because it sets the stage for anybody to access documents from any location, said Steve Weissman, president of Kinetic Information, a Waltham, Mass., market research firm. "It makes a huge amount of sense to do what [NFC] is doing," Weissman said. "From a process standpoint, the efficiency and savings accrue because everyone can get at the [information]."

Various people can work on the same document in parallel, and tasks such as checking to verify a dollar value can be performed automatically by the system, he said.

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