President Obama signed an executive order today directing federal agencies to limit the number of electronic devices issued to federal employees, expand their use of teleconferencing in lieu of travel and reduce the volume of documents the government prints each year.

Agencies have within 45 days to develop plans to reduce by 20 percent the combined federal spending associated with these and other expenses, including what agencies spend on vehicle fleets and the production of “non-essential items” for promotional purposes.

“The order sets bold goals for agencies to reduce spending on travel; limit the number of information technology devices (e.g. cell phones, smartphones, tablets, laptops) that can be issued to individual employees; stop unnecessarily printing documents that can be posted online; shrink the executive fleet of the federal government; and stop using taxpayer dollars to buy swag — the unnecessary plaques, clothing, and other promotional items that agencies purchase,” said Jeff Zients, deputy director and chief performance officer, Office of Management and Budget, in a White House blog post.

“Overall spending in the areas covered by the executive order will be reduced by 20 percent, saving billions,” he said.

The new order comes at a time when a growing number of agencies are testing a variety of mobile devices, most notably tablets, as a way to make employees more productive, and in other cases, reduce technology costs since tablets have a lower lifecylce support cost than desktop or laptop computers. The Veterans Affairs Department, for instance, is in the middle of piloting the use of tablet PCs for employees. Whether employees can forgo their desktops or laptops effectively remains to be seen.

Officials anticipate that a substantial amount of electronic device savings can be realized by eliminating unused cell phones and air cards.

“The Department of Commerce saved $1.8 million to date and will save a total of $3 million this year by disconnecting 2,648 wireless lines showing no usage for the past three months–including those assigned to retirees and former staff–as well as by optimizing rate plans,” the White House press secretary said in press statement.

The Department of Homeland Security saved $10.5 million to date through a similar initiative, according to the White House.

The White House has also targeted the production and shipping of hard copy documents, such as Federal Registers, and other unnecessary printing costs as a source of unnecessary spending in the digital age.

It cited plans at the Department of the Treasury to reduce printing costs by increasing the number of paperless transactions it conducts with the public, which it estimates can save more than $500 million and 12 million pounds of paper over its first five years alone.

Administration officials are also taking aim at travel and conference costs, and having agencies look to videoconferences and webinars as alternatives. The IRS said that and other travel saving decisions will result in a 27% drop in travel spending in fiscal year 2012, according to the White House.

The Executive Order is the latest, and perhaps most specific, effort in its so-called Campaign to Cut Waste. Among other initiatives, the administrations is in the process of reducing its inventory of federal real estate, and “is on track to save $3.5 billion in federal real estate costs by the end of fiscal year 2012,” White House officials said.

“It is clear that in these fiscally constrained times, there has to be discipline in the costs and purpose of travel, conferences and the like,” said Stan Soloway, CEO of the Professional Services Council.

But he cautioned that federal agencies and employees must “not over-react to the directive to avoid activities that benefit the agency – such as communications with the public and industry, or participating in widely attended events to share and solicit information from partners and stakeholders. That kind of information sharing remains essential to driving real efficiency and effectiveness,” he said.

“Each department and agency will need to make the targeted cost reductions wisely and strategically to avoid adversely impact the agency mission,” said John Palguta, vice president for policy, Partnership for Public Service.

“Eliminating unused cell phones and disconnecting unused wireless lines…is a no brainer. On the other hand, some IT investments pay for themselves by allowing reductions in other areas. For example, investing in enhanced video-conferencing capability may allow for a greater reduction in travel expenses as fewer in-person meetings are needed,” he said.

In addition to the executive order signing, Zients said, the administration also announced this year’s finalists for the 2011 SAVE Award, inviting the public to vote for the best idea.

“This year, OMB received nearly 20,000 cost-cutting ideas from employees across the country, ” said Zients. This year’s winner will get to present their idea directly to the President in the Oval Office.

Palguta, among others, praised OMB’s a the program .

“The SAVE awards are a powerful example of the beneficial use of ‘crowd sourcing’ to tap into and capture the insights and creativity of federal employees to identify specific ways to reduce costs without reducing the ability of government to get its job done,” said Palguta.

“One would hope that this initiative cascades down into the individual federal agencies and that agencies are acting on a number of the 20,000 ideas that were submitted to OMB in addition to those selected as finalists for the SAVE award,” he said.