TSP: Ready for prime time?

If the Thrift Savings Plan's computer systems were running properly and the processing backlogs cleared last month, user Matt O'Connor wasn't living proof.

To pay off a loan, the Navy employee sent a check to the TSP offices in early July. The check cleared later that month, he said, but as of Aug. 21, it had not been credited to his account. What's more, a series of calls he had made to inquire about the lost payment apparently weren't logged by the representatives with whom he spoke.

"The folks I spoke to basically didn't do anything," O'Connor said in an e-mail message to Federal Computer Week. "Their statement that [the situation] would be cleared up by the end of the week was hollow and meaningless."

In mid-August, he said, he finally reached a knowledgeable TSP customer service representative who explained how his payment would be traced through the system and straightened out. After that conversation, he was hoping the problem was solved — but he wasn't counting on it.

His was just one of several problems reported by FCW readers after the staff of the federal agency responsible for the TSP declared the system largely cured of the problems it had suffered for the past two months. But other participants in the nation's largest retirement savings plan said their interactions with the TSP had improved, and the volume of complaints to FCW diminished.

Some participants remain dissatisfied with the computer system upgrade that led to the problems. The new system, launched June 16, provides participants with online access to their accounts, provides daily updates on account values and offers other modern features, such as direct deposit of withdrawals and loans.

But users like Stephen Schmidt, a Labor Department employee, noted that the new system does not list a history of transactions for an account, making it difficult to see whether a particular purchase or sale of assets has taken place.

"To me, this is much more important than getting daily price updates," Schmidt said. Other users noted that such reports are standard for investment Web sites that track stocks and mutual funds.

The staff of the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board, the agency that runs the TSP, is looking at further improvements that would bring the plan more closely in line with private-sector norms.

Gary Amelio, the agency's executive director, told the board at its August meeting that he is looking into acquiring a toll-free telephone number for the plan at a cost of about $8 million per year. Currently, calls to the plan's ThriftLine are at the caller's expense. The agency will keep adding more incoming phone lines and will guarantee that callers get an occasional recorded message to assure them that they have not been forgotten while holding for an operator, Amelio said. He added that the TSP may open a second call center to spread the workload.

Amelio also aims to offer participants the option of receiving their statements online. The board may reduce the size of some statements to avoid printing and mailing detailed information not needed by most people in every statement, he added. The board is spending $6 million a year to mail out statements, he said.

Although the TSP's administrative costs are among the lowest of any comparable plan, he indicated that expenses may have to increase. "When you want bells and whistles, there certainly is a cost that goes along," Amelio told the board.


Thrift Savings Plan

The Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board operates the nation's largest retirement plan of its kind. The plan resembles the 401(k) plans that are common for workers in the private sector.

The Thrift Savings Plan has:

* $115.5 billion in funds invested for current and future federal retirees.

* 3.18 million participants.

* 5 funds with different investment strategies.

* 817,536 loans made to participants, totaling $4.5 billion.

* 86.7 percent of eligible people enrolled in the plan.

Source: Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board


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