Federal Players

David Williams: IRS Official Greatly Expanded Anti-Poverty Program

Federal Player of the Week: David Williams
Federal Player of the Week: David Williams (Photo courtesty of David Williams)
Monday, February 2, 2009; 12:00 AM

As a senior official at the Internal Revenue Service, David Williams has been more than a numbers guy trying to maximize tax collections.

During the four years he headed the office that administers the Earned Income Tax Credit -- the federal government's largest anti-poverty program -- Williams devised consumer-friendly ways to get more money into the hands of qualified low-income taxpayers.

Recognizing that millions of eligible workers did not know whether they qualified or how to claim the tax credit, Williams helped established a network of service organizations, local nonprofits and businesses to get the word out to communities across the nation.

"Most taxpayers really don't want to hear from the IRS even if you tell them it is good news. We are not the best channel to communicate with them about benefits, and with lower income working people, it is even harder,'' Williams said. "We realized we had a huge opportunity to leverage community-based organizations all over the country that have trusted relationships and who know the people."

The results of this grassroots approach have been impressive, with the IRS estimating that an additional one million eligible taxpayers have received the credit in the past two tax years. Williams said he expects the number of people eligible for the credit will spike this year because of the recession, ``making our outreach programs more important than ever.''

At the same time he expanded access, Williams said he instituted measures to eliminate error and fraud in the program. The IRS said the effort has saved about $2 billion annually in erroneous payments.

Steven Dow, executive director of the Community Acton Project of Tulsa, Okla., said Williams has been "totally accessible and responsive'' to the people on the frontlines in helping provide information and make the anti-poverty program work.

``He has stood shoulder to shoulder with the advocacy community and the service organizations to make sure the greatest number of people as possible who deserve the benefit get it," said Dow. "He has also walked the fine line to minimize mistakes and fraud."

Under the outreach plan designed by Williams and his staff, the IRS works directly with hundreds of organizations and has established links with 12,000 volunteer tax assistance sites at banks, businesses and community centers where some two million tax returns a year are prepared.

The IRS provides information about the low income tax credit and other benefits, offers training and computer software to assist the community organizations, and sponsors publicity campaigns including a national Earned Income Tax Credit Awareness Day that was held last Friday.

In 2007, 23.1 million eligible low income families and individuals claimed the earned income tax credit worth $44.6 billion. To qualify, taxpayers must meet certain requirements and file a tax return, even if they did not earn enough money to be obligated to file. The 2008 credit can reach $4,824 for a taxpayer with two or more qualifying children.

Donna Cohen Ross, outreach director for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington nonprofit advocacy group, said Williams speaks every year to about two dozen community leaders from around the nation who come to Washington at the invitation of her organization to get training on how to help low income families.

"He tells them what the credit is about, why it is so important, why their work in local communities matters and what the IRS is able to do for them," said Ross. ``After they hear Dave, they know there is a real person who really wants to see people get the benefits they have earned. There are people in government like Dave who are gems and when you find them, it's something very important and very special.''

The IRS promoted Williams last March. He still retains oversight responsibilities for the earned income tax credit program, but now is also in charge of the IRS e-file program used by most taxpayers, the IRS.gov Web site, and the development of additional electronic interactions with taxpayers and tax practitioners.

(This article was jointly prepared by Partnership for Public Service, a group seeking to enhance the performance of the federal government, and washingtonpost.com)

© 2009 The Washington Post Company