TSP officials promise service will improve after a difficult transition to the new recordkeeping system

The TSP's customer service line will have more staff to help handle questions.

The TSP's customer service line will have more staff to help handle questions. Constantine Johnny / Getty Images

Staffing at the call center that serves participants of the federal government’s 401(k)-style retirement savings program has already increased 66%, with more on the way.

Officials at the federal government’s 401(k)-style retirement savings program apologized again for the struggles some participants have had accessing and using the Thrift Savings Plan’s new web-based services, following the transition to a new recordkeeper, and promised additional help was on the way.

The Thrift Savings Plan launched a number of new services with the transition from a self-managed recordkeeping system to a commercial vendor on June 1, including a more secure login process, a mobile app, the ability to sign documents electronically and make account changes using online forms, and access to more than 5,000 mutual funds. But many participants had difficulty setting up new online TSP accounts, and struggled to use the new features once they could log in.

Tee Ramos, director of participant services for the TSP, told members of the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board, which administers the retirement savings program, at its monthly meeting Tuesday that many of the problems related to the launch came down to another outside vendor, which operates the TSP’s customer service call center known as the Thrift Line, significantly underestimating demand.

“In conjunction with the login process and other transition changes, we had some other factors contribute to high call volumes, including pent up demand due to the blackout window [during the transition] and [volatile] market conditions,” Ramos said. “Our vendor staffing projections were not sufficient to meet demand.”

Since June 1, 320 additional staff have been added to TSP’s call center, an increase of 66%, and Ramos said another 100 will join the ranks within the next week.

Regarding the difficulties some participants had in setting up new accounts to access their TSP accounts online, Ramos said the agency’s goal was for 90% of participants to be able to set up their accounts without help. He noted that under the old system, the only way to get online access was for the agency to mail participants a one-time pass code.

“Many participants expressed concerns about [the new login process], but it really was in response to a surge in cyber crime in recent years,” Ramos said. “It was about taking a safe system that we had and making it safer. But we have since adjusted those processes to help people sign up more easily.”

Ramos said problems that some participants encountered where their already filed beneficiary designations did not carry over to the new system were actually intentional due to a “data quality issue,” although he said the agency has all of the old data on file and will honor those designations until those participants update them in the new system.

“Roughly 266,000 accounts didn’t have their designations transferred over, and it was not an oversight—it was due to the quality of the data in the old system,” Ramos said. “We weren’t confident that it would transfer well to the new system. But we do have the beneficiary forms for those accounts on file, and we have a process in place to file those designations. In the meantime, we’re encouraging everyone to review and update their information online.”

Some participants also reported that historical information, including the last 10 years of account statements, did not carry over to the new system. Ramos said that the TSP determined that moving those records—which collectively amounts to 665 million documents—to the new system was not “cost effective” and would pose a security risk. All of those records are available upon request via the Thrift Line, although he acknowledged that process is currently fraught due to the high call volumes.

TSP board member Dana Bilyeu thanked TSP employees for their work launching the new recordkeeper and working to fix the issues that have cropped up over the last month, but said there needs to be accountability with the vendor who runs the agency’s call center.

“I would like to see if we could potentially have our vendor . . . make a presentation about their lessons learned and what they want to do to go forward and make a better effort in meeting these challenges,” Bilyeu said. “I know you all have been working very hard to get them to staff up appropriately, so they need to come to us and explain exactly why they understaffed those call centers. I know those expectations—they believed in them, but clearly they were very far off, given the fact that they had to staff up by 66% and we’re still suffering a bit at the call centers.”

TSP Executive Director Ravindra Deo said he has been working personally to ensure the call center vendor improves its service through the end of the transition.

“I’ve been in constant communications with the vendor to make sure they understand that this is job #1,” Deo said. “I’ve been in multiple conversations with the head of [the company] to make sure she understands that this is critical for us, and I told her that I expected her, as soon as we’re through this mess, which I think will be fairly soon, to come to the board and explain what happened and what they’ll do to prevent it ever happening again.”