Swag: Who has it, what is it?

The executive order placing limits on agencies’ ability to provide mobile devices and other technology to federal employees garnered a lot of media coverage, but most mainstream news outlets put the focus on just one aspect of the order: the use of the term "swag."

For those who don't know, swag refers to small items or gifts like the giveaways at trade shows branded with the company's logo. In the context of the executive order, it applies to items that agencies buy with taxpayer money and then give away.

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David Coursey

at Forbes looked beyond the term "swag" and focused on the specifics of the order that arguably are most important to federal employees — not just the limits on IT devices but also the shift from printing to posting information online.

But Coursey questioned how much money the provisions will save. "The statement said the president expects the order to result in saving 'billions' of taxpayer dollars but offered no specific details," he wrote.

Elsewhere, the reporting was more playful. The New York Post went for a characteristically cheesy headline: “O vows fall of $wagdad.”

That led to a lead also in keeping with the Post’s general tabloid style: “Grab those free government pens while you still can,” wrote Geoff Earle and Chuck Bennett. “President Obama yesterday ordered all federal agencies to stop passing out swag and souvenirs willy-nilly.”

The Post also noted that White House cuff links are paid for with private funds, so the order doesn’t affect their availability.

At Politico, reporter M.J. Lee contacted more than a dozen agencies to ask what swag they have available and found that most had none at all. Some were not even aware of the executive order until Lee told them about it, according to the article.

“The Peace Corps was one of the few organizations that had a whiff of swag,” Lee wrote. “Stephen Chapman, the public affairs specialist for the mid-Atlantic regional recruiting office, said they give out pens, highlighters and key chains at recruiting events, including career fairs on school campuses.”

"Obama Foodorama" — a blog about White House food initiatives — raised the question of cakes.

Specifically, Eddie Gehman Kohan wrote about a white cake decorated with the Agriculture Department’s logo and a large “150 years.”

“Swag is defined as ‘non-essential items used for promotional purposes, such as clothing, mugs and non-work-related gadgets,’" Kohan wrote. "In theory, cakes like the one above may now be off limits. It was created for Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack's recent visit to Springfield, Ill., to ‘soft launch’ the yearlong 2012 celebration of USDA's 150th anniversary. ... The cake's decoration is USDA's new commemorative logo, which will be on plenty of swag. Which raises the question: Is cake a swaggy ‘non-work-related gadget’?"

The Wall Street Journal highlighted some exceptions to the rule. “Federal Bureau of Investigation and Federal Emergency Management Agency jackets will stay because they are work-related garments,” Carol Lee and Jared Favole wrote. “Performance and recruitment tools for the military also won't be cut, including commemorative military coins that commanders and other top officials hand out.”

On the Washington Post's "In the Loop" blog, Emily Heil emphasized transportation. “President Obama is poised to put the kibosh on spending by agencies on travel, equipment and technology, which not only means we’ll likely see more officials hoofing it across town instead of cabbing, but that there won’t be any agency merch to spread around,” she wrote.

Her colleague Ed O’Keefe, in his "Federal Eye" blog, reported that after a recent Chief Human Capital Officers Council meeting, a reporter observed at least four government-owned vehicles idling outside the meeting location, waiting to drive attendees back to their offices. One official who got into a car was Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry, whose office was just two blocks away.


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