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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:

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 in EPA. The typical subject file has the following characteristics, ALL BAD:

Subject files can work, and at the branch and section level they often make sense. How can you make a good subject file? Here are some tips:

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 Steps 1 and 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.

Agency File Codes

The approach we suggest is to use the Agency File Codes as the basic tag to identify each series. The file code is made up of the function code (e.g., 401 - Administrative Management) and then the three digit EPA series number from the records schedules. The function code allows you to separate them by business process. Besides allowing you to easily and briefly identify each series, the file codes serve to standardize records across programs and facilitate the exchange of information and the tracking of records.

A Sample of Commonly Used Agency File Codes

401 110 - Office Administrative Files

405 036 - Routine Procurement Files

401 187 - Intra-Agency and Internal Committees

405 202 - Contract Management Records

401 127 - General Correspondence Files

Once you've identified the series using 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:

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.

Some Final Tips

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.

Introduction | Step 1 | Step 2 | Step 3 | Step 4 | Step 5 | Step 6

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