Processing times may get slower as TSP board takes extra caution during Equifax aftermath

The agency that administers the TSP said it's planning to take additional caution in validating participants' identities in light of the Equifax breach.

Participants in the Thrift Savings Plan may see slower reaction time from the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board (FRTIB), as the agency said it’s planning to be extra careful as it processes funds going in and out of the TSP in the aftermath of the Equifax breach.

“In some cases, we’re going to have to sacrifice convenience and speed for security. I want our participants to know that their security is our number one priority,” said Tee Ramos, director of participant services for the FRTIB, during the board’s October meeting. “I anticipate some of the changes that we’re going to make over the next several months are possibly going to slow down some of our processes.”

Many of those changes were already part of the agency’s plan to update and secure its IT systems and infrastructure. But the TSP is taking extra caution now as it validates participants’ identities, especially in light of the Equifax breach that put 145 million people and as many as 209,000 Social Security numbers at a higher risk for identity fraud.

“It’s having the ability to make sure that we know who you say you are,” Ramos said. “With all of the, quite frankly, people’s data, a lot of the things that typically are used for validating are out there in the ether now. We have to come up with new ways to make sure that your money’s safe, and that’s our ultimate priority.”

Participants will primarily see slowdowns in how quickly the FRTIB processes funds going in and out of the TSP, but they may also experience slower response times from the TSP’s call centers, Ramos said.

“We’ve been rolling out lots of things really fast, and sometimes unanticipated bumps happen,” he said. “We’ve had a couple of unanticipated bumps, which have slowed down our service at the call centers. I anticipate that over the short term, that will continue.”

The FRTIB has been trying to modernize and improve the cybersecurity of its troubled legacy IT systems for the past few years, but it’s taken a more ambitious path in the past year. The agency has been working through 12 different IT initiatives and will identify more in the next two months. Modernizing its IT infrastructure at TSP call centers and implementing Identity, Credential and Access Management are among the 12 priorities for the next few months.

The additional caution and the agency’s IT efforts come as the FRTIB prepares to handle an influx of as many as 269,000 new service members to the TSP next year and possibly 300,000 to 475,000 new participants who choose to opt into the new “blended retirement” system Jan. 1, 2018.

Existing uniformed services participants say they’re slightly less satisfied with the TSP and its current investment offerings, according to the agency’s latest customer survey.

Roughly 88 percent of uniformed service members say they’re satisfied with the TSP overall, compared with 90 percent of Federal Employee Retirement System (FERS) participants and 94 percent of Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS) participants.

The board partnered with Gallup to survey about 39,000 TSP participants. Of the 6,725 who answered, 89 percent said they were satisfied or extremely satisfied with the TSP overall. That’s slightly better than the TSP’s 87 percent satisfaction rate from 2013, the last time the FRTIB surveyed its participants.

Roughly 30 percent of active TSP participants nearing retirement age said they plan to transfer funds from the TSP to another account after retiring from federal service, while 35 percent said they plan to withdraw immediately from the plan.

About 80 percent of active participants are contributing at least 5 percent of their basic pay into the TSP. Roughly 12 percent of participants are contributing less than 5 percent, while 7 percent said they’re not contributing at all to the TSP.

A majority of participants who contribute less than 5 percent of their income said they simply can’t afford to save that much during a given pay period.

Lower employee engagement at the TSP

Despite relatively high satisfaction rates among the TSP’s participants, employees at the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board say they’re feeling less pleased with their work environment at the agency.

About 66 percent of FRTIB employees say they felt engaged, according to the results of the 2017 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey. That’s 6 percent lower than the previous year’s engagement score of 72 percent.

“It’s absolutely fair to say that for everyone here at the table, these scores are concerning to us,” Gisile Goethe, director of the agency’s Office of Resource Management, said.

The agency’s leadership said they’re particularly alarmed by the steep drop in positive responses to some specific questions on the 2017 survey.

For example, 46 percent of FRTIB employees said they had a high level of respect for their agency’s senior leaders, compared to 57 percent in 2016.

Just 40 percent of employees said their leaders generated high levels of motivation and commitment in 2017, while 56 percent answered positively during the previous year.

About 47 percent of FRTIB employees said their leaders maintained high standards of honesty and integrity in 2017, compared to 61 percent in 2016.

The FRTIB will bring in the Center for Organizational Excellence to help the agency look through the scores and develop a plan to improve employee engagement and morale, Goethe said.

“The effort is going to take more than, likely, a year for us to really sit down and really dig up what the root causes are,” she said. “There are quick wins that we can actually implement that may have an effect on next year’s scores and that would be great, but we really want to focus on, holistically, whether there are any changes we can make.”

Goethe and several of the board’s members said the many changes in the agency’s leadership over the past year may have had an impact on the 2017 scores. The FRTIB lost its executive director of 10 years, Greg Long, in April. A new chief technology officer and a new chief operating officer also joined the agency this year.

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