Bugs Bite Federal Pension Fund

June 19, 2003 (PLANSPONSOR.com) - Officials at the problem-plagued Thrift Savings Plan may well be thinking, "What did I do to deserve this?"

The latest glitch came Wednesday – two days after the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board (FRTIB) launched its long-anticipated, but long-delayed recordkeeping system, which brings daily valuation to the federal worker’s retirement accounts, according to a story in The Washington Post.

Unfortunately, countless numbers of TSP participants couldn’t get account access via the plan’s Web site – a problem officials blamed on an unforseen computer bug. The recordkeeping system “is working fine. It’s just that you can’t get in to watch it from the Web,” Lawrence Stiffler, FRTIB director of automated systems, told the Post.

When a participant logs in and “starts doing something,” Stiffler explained, such as asking the Web site to show an account balance, the transaction can kick the system’s internal communications into a loop. Once several loops are running, the system bogs down. The system stops letting users in or blocks their access because it garbles Social Security and personal identification numbers.

A tech crew worked on a temporary fix that should allow participants to log in quicker and check their account balances, Stiffler told the Post. “If you want to do other things, it will be slow. It will at least let people get into the Web site and see their account and get some assurance that it is working,” he said.

Between 5,000 and 10,000 participants were getting into the TSP site on an hourly basis Wednesday, he said. The system does not track how many tried to get in and were turned away. The data-looping problem may be aggravated by a shift in how participants are using the site, he added. In the past, about half of TSP participants who were online checked their account balances, Stiffler said. Since the new system came online, by a ratio of 10 to one, participants are asking for information about loans, he said.

Despite the Web access problem, the system itself is running without major difficulties, TSP officials said. On Tuesday night, the system processed 433,000 payroll contributions, made 571 interfund transfers worth $24.8 million and issued five loans worth about $51,400 that were requested via the Web site, Stiffler told the Post.

Still, this week’s glitch reminded many employees of the TSP’s long-running woes with computer upgrades. The TSP began work on the new record-keeping system in 1997 but fell behind schedule, in large part because of a dispute with the original contractor. The TSP fired the contractor, claiming that there were too many defects in the software, and hired a replacement. The dispute led to a lawsuit that is pending in federal court (See  Thrift Savings Plan Recordkeeping System Still Floundering ).