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Six Steps to Better Files

Step 3. Developing the Filing System – The File Structure and File Plan

Many people think a file plan is simply a listing of the file folders currently in their file cabinets. A real file plan is only one component of a filing system, which is a set of policies and procedures for organizing and identifying files or documents to speed their retrieval, use, and disposition. The first document in the filing system was the Matrix for Office Files you developed as part of Step 1. The matrix shows what files the program maintains, who maintains them, and where they are maintained. The second document is the records schedule that describes the record series and gives the retention and disposition. The third document is the file plan.

Why are the File Plans Important?

Day-to-day, it is your key to better files. It will help you avoid the "subject file trap" by enabling you to:

  • Document your program's activities effectively.
  • Identify records consistently.
  • Retrieve records quickly.
  • Link to the records schedules.
  • Retire records to the Federal Records Center easily.

The Subject File Trap

How often do you hear the request to "Please make a new folder for this and add it to the subject file"? The office "subject file" is one of the biggest records management problems. The typical subject file has the following characteristics, ALL BAD:

  • It contains records, non records and personal papers.
  • It contains records that belong in multiple series.
  • There are no rules or procedures for filing documents.
  • It is never "cut off" so that active and inactive records are filed together.

Subject files can work, and at lower organizational levels they often make sense. How can you make a good subject file? Here are some tips:

  • Establish procedures for filing documents and maintaining the file.
  • Restrict the subject file to records used for managing and administering the unit, such as branch or section. File records about actual work the unit does in appropriate series.
  • Establish a list of subjects and keep it up to date. Make the filing designations broad enough that you don't end up making a new file for every new document.

File plans operate on two levels. They guide you in identifying and arranging the records series in the filing equipment, and they guide you in arranging the document or file folders in the records series. Although the two are related, there are some differences.

Identifying and Arranging Series

As you completed Step 1 and Step 2, you identified and separated out the nonrecord materials in your file cabinets, and then identified the records series and matched them to the records schedules. The series is the fundamental building block of the file plan. Identifying records by series makes it easy to determine what should be filed in the series and what the retention is. To work most effectively, the series, records schedules, and file plan must be integrated into an overall file plan structure.


There is no one arrangement scheme that is best for all records. Here are some basic suggestions on the major ones. For more information, consult any records management text book, or contact the National Records Management Program for a bibliography of what is available in the records management collection.

  • Chronological
    Arranged by date. Most useful for small files and for records that have a very short life span so that you can destroy older materials without difficulty.
  • Numeric
    Arranged by number. In its simplest form, a serial arrangement beginning with the lowest number and proceeding, but more complex systems can be used for large series. Best for case files of one type or another, permits, and forms where numbers have already been assigned.
  • Alphabetical
    Arranged in alphabetical order from A-Z. This is the basic arrangement for most subject files. There are books written on both how to assign the titles that are put in alphabetical order, and how to alphabetize the folder (Do you file University of Maryland under University or Maryland?). Alphabetical subject files are difficult to manage unless they are very focused, and the filing and identification of folders is consistent. If you have a folder that concerns the publication of a Federal Register notice concerning a regulation on a specific chemical, do you file it under Federal Register Notices, regulations, or the name of the chemical? Best used for small files or very consistent ones where the folder titles are easily determined -- e.g., a file of all outgoing correspondence arranged by addressee.
  • Alpha-numeric
    Arranged according to an identifier made up of letters and numbers. Whenever possible, the alphabetic and numeric parts of the identifier should mean something rather than being arbitrarily assigned.

File Codes

One approach we suggest is to use the codes found in 0000.1G - FAA Standard Subject Classification System

Once you've identified the series and the file code, you can begin grouping those with the same prefix together in your filing equipment. Half of the file plan battle is won!

Arranging the Records Within the Series

The second stage of the file plan is to determine how to arrange the folders or documents within the series. There are four basic ways to arrange records within a series:

  • By date (chronological)
  • By some assigned number (numeric)
  • In alphabetical order by folder title (alphabetic)
  • According to a code made up of letters and numbers (alpha-numeric)

Choosing the Arrangement

The obvious question is which arrangement scheme to choose for each series of records. You need to think about how the records will be used, what characteristics the staff use to identify the records, how the records are requested, and whether they will be indexed. Let's look at each of these issues in turn.

  • How will the records be used?
  • What characteristics do the staff use to refer to the records?
  • How are the records requested?
    Perhaps you have a correspondence series of outgoing letters signed by various staff members. There are a number of ways to arrange the outgoing letters. If someone asks you to find a letter, what do they say? If it's "I wrote a letter..." maybe the series should be arranged by author or signer. If it's "About three weeks ago..." chronological may be the best bet. If it's "Didn't we send a letter to so-and-so..." the arrangement should be by addressee. Finally, if it's "Have we ever had a letter asking about..." then a subject file might be best. Pick the arrangement that will enable you to respond to the most requests most easily. If the series is an important one, you should think about indexing it to simplify searching in multiple ways.
  • Will the records be indexed?
    If the records will be indexed, the questions are a lot simpler. Generally, modern automated indexes offer a number of search fields, and the physical arrangement of the records is less important. If the records will be indexed, the series should be physically arranged in whatever way makes the filing simplest, usually chronologically or numerically, depending upon the type of records.

Some Final Tips

  • Keep the file plan simple. Let the records "structure themselves" when at all possible. For example, don't make up an alpha-numeric filing scheme for permits that already have a number.
  • Consider using color coding for files or special folders to make filing simpler.
  • Have program staff assist in developing the file plan. They will have useful suggestions, and they will feel more positive about using the file plan if they had a hand in developing it.
  • Don't reinvent the wheel - contact your Program Office, Region, or Center Records Officer for assistance.

Should you contract out the development of your file plan?

Contractors can assist programs in developing file plans, but no amount of contractor support can eliminate the need for staff involvement in the process. The most critical step in developing a filing system is determining the system requirements by analyzing how and why the files are created, how and why they are accessed, what needs to be included in the files, and how long files need to be retained and why. These are Agency decisions based on Agency knowledge and needs. Once these questions are answered, a contractor can take those answers and create a filing system to meet those requirements. Bottom line — contract out if you want, but realize that developing a workable file plan will still require lots of staff time and involvement.

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