Paper backlog dogs retirement system

It will take three to four weeks before the new computer system for managing the Thrift Savings Plan is cleaned up, the chairman of the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board told lawmakers last month.

The problem is twofold: Conversion to the new system created a massive paperwork backlog, and unexpected system slowdowns lengthened the amount of time it takes to process paperwork and new transactions.

Nevertheless, federal officials testifying before the House Government Reform Committee said they stand behind contractor Matcom International Corp. and the system it developed.

The vendor and agency are correcting any technology glitches and whittling away at the paperwork backlog, chairman Andrew Saul said.

Speed is improving daily, and 'we believe this system is a good system,' he said.

About 170 bugs have been identified, but none are so troublesome that they are 'going to take the system down. As we eliminate them I think you are going to find everything speeds up,' Saul said.

The system launched June 16, 23 months after the Alexandria, Va., company took over the troubled project. The board hired Matcom after firing American Management Systems Inc. of Fairfax, Va. AMS had worked on the project for four years. Matcom's contract is worth about $26 million.

Matcom's system brought the Thrift Savings Plan into the 21st century, said Gary Amelio, executive director of the thrift board. It is the largest defined contribution plan in the world, serving 3 million people and holding $113 billion in assets.

The system is designed to process employee transactions and update the values of the five TSP retirement funds daily, rather than monthly. It also, for the first time, reports account balances in shares as well as dollars and offers multiple withdrawal options. Plus, plan participants can apply online for loans from their retirement accounts.

Bad old days

The new features made it impossible to use the old system to back up the new one when Matcom identified slowdowns, Lou Ray, Matcom's president and chief executive officer, said in an interview.

'Once you start processing loans against yesterday's balance as opposed to the end of the month, there is no way to do that on the old system,' he said.

The board spent $6.5 million testing the system to ensure it would work when it went live, Saul said. Its performance has been creaky, but it has not gone down. When the system first went live, it processed 100,000 transactions a day, Ray said. After some tweaking, it was handling 813,000 transactions a day by July 21.

The old system processed up to 500,000 transactions only once, Amelio said. The new TSP system can handle 60,000 transactions per hour, 10,000 more than it was designed to process, he said.

Ray acknowledged that problems with the system's software slowed the processing on the mainframe. The board has added two Web servers to help speed processing time, bringing the number of Web servers dedicated to the system to four.

Still, users have been frustrated by long waits to log on and complete transactions. Currently, they are advised to avoid using the system during peak hours, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

'But what good is a Web site providing access to $113 billion in plan assets when you have to log on at three in the morning?' asked Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), chairman of the committee, who acknowledged 'the enormity and complexity of the project.'

In some cases, users have been unable to conduct transactions online at all, according to members of Congress who reported myriad calls from constituents upset by online delays, as well as their inability to get help by telephone or mail from the National Finance Center in New Orleans.

The center, run by the Agriculture Department, uses the system to process transactions received by mail and provides customer service via phone.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said he had received eight to 10 constituent letters daily about the new system, including one from a retired Marine colonel who was trying to save his home from foreclosure but could not get his withdrawal application processed.

Playing catch-up

Part of the problem is a backlog of 70,000 paper loan and withdrawal transactions that resulted from the move to the new system.

Loan applicants whose paperwork was not processed before the system went live had to fill out a new form that asked for the data required by the new system. That meant applications took longer than usual to process.

The backlog should be eliminated within a month, Saul said. All new loan applications should be processed within 10 days, the industry standard, Amelio said.

Contractor employees at two sites'Matcom's facility in Fair Oaks, Va., and subcontractor SunGard Data Systems Inc. in Birmingham, Ala.'are helping clear the backlog by doing manual data entry, along with additional staff reassigned to the task at the National Finance Center.
Tom Trabucco, spokesman for the thrift board, said the additional data-entry staff was put on the job about three weeks after the system went live.

'I do not think this is a technology problem,' Saul said. 'We got buried by a massive amount of data entry that came in during the conversion process. The human way'that's where we have failed.'

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