Software bugs stall savings plan

Federal workers will have to wait until at least next spring before they

have access to new investment options through the government's retirement

savings plan.

Software problems have delayed the rollout of a new recordkeeping system

that had been slated for Oct. 1, the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment

Board announced this month.

The Thrift Savings Plan record-keeping system will offer federal employees

new features, including two new investment funds, daily valuation of accounts

and enhanced withdrawal benefits. TSP is the government's equivalent of

a 401(k) program.

American Management Systems Inc., which is developing the system, has

not made "significant progress in testing the system and in fixing numerous

software defects," according to the board, which held a meeting with the

vendor on June 8. AMS recommended that the board delay the deadline for

bringing the system online until spring 2001. A new date has not been set.

"When [the system] is in hand and we're confident the system can be

rolled out, then we will announce a date," a spokesman for the board said.

AMS expects to encounter 8,000 to 10,000 software bugs and will need

additional time to test and correct the problems, according to the board.

AMS said the software bugs stem from problems integrating commercial packages

with an existing system and are not caused by any defects in the software

itself. Meanwhile, core TSP functions will be unaffected.

The Agriculture Department's National Finance Center in New Orleans,

which runs the TSP for the board, will be ready for the rollout when it

takes place, said Ed McManus, project director of TSP conversion at the

NFC. The center's job is to provide the infrastructure to run the system,

including a new IBM Corp. mainframe and training equipment to prepare the

work force to use the new features.

Most of the estimated 400 people operating the existing TSP system input

data and process forms, but some are developers and program analysts who

will need to support the new software code. Training will consist of instructor-led

and computer-based courses, McManus said.

"We're doing the same things we were doing before — issuing loans, making

withdrawals," McManus said. "How [we] feed transactions into the system

will be different; the input screens will be different from the original

system. [But] I don't think it will be insurmountable to make that transition."

The TSP system is a "good system" that makes payments and processes

contributions when it is supposed to, McManus said. "The board, in response

to participants' requests, was trying to make it a little more modern,"

he said.

The recordkeeping software is based on two commercial off-the-shelf

AMS packages that are widely used in the government and commercial markets,

according to an AMS spokesman.

"They cannot be implemented in a plug-and-play fashion," the AMS spokesman

said. "This is inherently a process in which the first connections typically

are not right."

AMS, which was awarded the recordkeeping contract in 1997, has delayed

the program twice. The original May deadline had been pushed to October

when the company said it needed more time to test the system.

The project is large and sophisticated, and the requirements have changed

as the board has requested additional functionality, the AMS spokesman said.

"We are taking a conservative approach to our go-live date," he said.

In the meantime, the board has asked the brand-new Defense Contract

Management Agency to independently review the contract. The Defense Contract

Audit Agency has been monitoring the program since February.

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