File Cartography

In our Files & Filing workshops for local governments and state agencies, we recommend development of a file plan. The file plan is the “road map” to an office’s filing system. The file plan specifies the logical order of paper and electronic files, and the arrangement by which all documents may be identified, stored, and retrieved.

While the file plan is based on an inventory of files, it is prescriptive rather than descriptive. That is, the  records management team, clerical workers, and professional staff come up with the optimal arrangement of the files and which documents go in those files. The file plan anticipates growth and change. Within this optimal arrangement, a basic file plan identifies the paper and electronic files and their physical locations or locations on the shared network drive. A file plan can dive deeper, however, with details such as the specific documents within the files, custodians, dates, arrangement notes, cross-references, retention and disposition instructions, links to the relevant records retention schedules, and identification of confidential and vital records. Records retention schedules for North Carolina’s state agencies and local governments are found here.

A great resource on file plan creation is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s File Plan Guide. The Guide points out, for example, that a file plan should answer the following questions:

  • Who?  Who is custodian? Who creates the files? Who uses the files?
  • What? What are the files called? What documents are found in the files? What format are the files (paper, electronic, or both)? What confidential information is in the files? What holds can the files be put under?
  • Where? Where should the files be located?
  • When? What is the date range of the files? When are case files opened and closed? What are the retention and disposition instructions for the files?
Example File Plan

Example File Plan. Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Once completed, a file plan should be distributed to everyone and everyone should follow it for their filing setup. As the file plan evolves over time, the file plan manager tracks the different versions and ensures that the latest version is being followed.

Commercial software packages for file plan creation and maintenance are on the market, but word processing and spreadsheet software also work well. Since a file plan is only good if it is current, any software should support easy editing of the file plan.

A file plan is a “living document” that needs care and feeding, i.e., updating as work processes, responsibilities, and records retention schedules change. As the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency notes, “[a] file plan can be a very effective tool when it is carefully planned, documented, and kept up-to-date.”