this thing's incredible

The Department of Veterans Affairs Finds All Sorts of Uses for These Evidence Bags

Photo-Illustration: The Strategist

Walk into most offices and you probably won’t see people using plastic evidence bags to squirrel away breakroom doughnuts or store pens and paper clips. But some staffers at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs have put them to all sorts of mundane uses since 2016, when bureaucratic hand-wringing and a few dozen sugar cookies left us with a stash of the bags and no official evidence to fill them with.

In 2013, when I started working as the chief technology officer of the agency under President Obama, we faced a daunting challenge: Make it easier for veterans to access their benefits online, especially health care. One problem was that the benefits websites were stored on physical computers and required actual humans to monitor their traffic and plug in more machines when necessary.

The solution was clearly to move the whole network to the cloud, but the legal team balked — without the computers, if they ever had to investigate wrongdoing, how could they put something they couldn’t physically touch (the cloud) into an evidence bag? Yes, it was a serious question.

Eventually, we convinced our lawyers that online investigations were the way to go. To drive the point home, I even baked cloud-shaped sugar cookies and passed them out at the office holiday party, wrapped in plastic evidence bags. (See, you can put the cloud in a bag — plus no more hauling away bulky computers tagged as evidence.)

Once the bags were no longer needed for preserving physical evidence, they took on new uses at work. In D.C., where you’re constantly moving among buildings in all sorts of weather, they’re a convenient way to keep notes and important papers safe and dry. People use them to deliver desserts or memos, turning them into a wink-y intraoffice envelope — they’ve become a sort of secret handshake among colleagues slogging through the bureaucracy. Long after I left the Department of Veterans Affairs in 2017, they still come up in the alumni group chat. (“But can you put it in an evidence bag?” is a common refrain.) I use them to hold extra office supplies.

But anyone can go online and buy the bags, which come in both plastic and paper versions. You can also “wrap” gifts in them (as I recently did with signed bookplate stickers for my new book) or use them to make your desk lunch look like a prop cribbed from the set of Law & Order. They are the perfect accessory to all sorts of Halloween costumes and pranks, and they are handy for holding practically anything — except ancient government computers.