TSP's troubled modernization history

The effort to modernize the Thrift Savings Plan's system dates back to 1997 when the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board awarded a contract for the upgrade to American Management Systems Inc. of Fairfax, Va. After increasingly acrimonious communications with AMS about the project's progress, the board terminated the contract in 2001. The board and AMS are now engaged in litigation over the termination.

Less than 18 months after replacing AMS with a team headed by Materials, Communications and Computers Inc. of Alexandria, Va., the board almost had a system that was ready to go live. But Lawrence Stiffler, director of automated systems for the board, said test runs showed it would take more than 12 hours to process the expected volume of transactions. That wasn't good enough for a system that was supposed to do its work overnight.

To solve that problem, the team broke up the database into five files according to the last digit of each participant's Social Security number. With concurrent processing of the five files, "we got it down to about five hours, tops," Stiffler said.

The magnitude of the effort did not impress many who visited the TSP Web site in the first days after the system's June 16 launch. Many FCW readers said the system compared unfavorably with Web sites operated by investment companies such as Fidelity and Vanguard that allow participants to access their 401(k) retirement plans, which the TSP resembles. But according to Olivia Mitchell, executive director of the Pension Research Council at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, probably less than one-quarter of all U.S. participants in 401(k) plans can alter their investment strategies daily and get daily valuations as TSP participants can.

"It sounds like there was just a huge pent-up demand for information," Mitchell said. She also noted that TSP participants have benefited from low administrative costs over the years.

The National Finance Center, a huge data center in New Orleans operated by the Agriculture Department, houses the entire system. It provides hardware, some integration services and customer service representatives who assist TSP callers.

TSP participants can access customer service representatives on one of 200 phone lines, and another 192 lines access the ThriftLine interactive voice response system. NFC supports data communications with federal agencies that report payroll deductions and participation changes. Each agency has a phone line or Web connection with the center.

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