File Plans: What Are They and How Can You Use Them?

In the records and information management (RIM) field, a file plan is a tool you can use to keep track of what and where records live in your organization for their entire lifecycle, from creation or receipt to disposition. Think of it as a roadmap that marks important landmarks regarding a record: where and in what format it is stored, how long it needs to be retained, and other considerations you may not find on a retention schedule. The benefits of using a file plan are that you can better ensure compliance with records management laws and rules, create efficiencies around organizing and accessing information, mitigate risk by identifying records with special considerations, reinforce consistent record handling procedures, and facilitate activities like inventories, audits, or disposition.

A map of the world with pins inserted into different locations.

How is it Different Than a Retention Schedule?

A retention schedule is a broader document that lists all the record series of an organization with retention periods assigned to indicate the minimum amount of time that the record must be retained. It will also list laws or citations that affect the record, and may contain instructions to evaluate the legal, fiscal, administrative, or historical significance before disposal. A file plan, on the other hand, is a much more targeted and evolving document that speaks specifically to the records living in your organization, including convenience copies. It is intended to be updated whenever new functions, activities, or records pop up; if it is a roadmap, think of updating it when construction shuts down a road or a new shortcut appears–anything that gets employees where they are going in a better, more efficient manner is a worthwhile update.

What Elements Can It Contain?

  • Record Number – While it might not have much meaning to a casual user, including the record number in the file plan will help people become acclimated to seeing it as part of the record, as well as aid in disposition when it comes time to destroy or transfer the records.
  • Title and Description – Naturally, you will want to include a title and description for each part of the file plan, and you can really help users by being as detailed as possible. Exactly what records are kept under this record series? Are there form names or numbers used that are specific to your organization? Are several record series bucketed into one series on the file plan? All of this information and more can be included with your file plan.
  • Retention Period – Obviously, you’ll want to include the retention period on the file plan, but you can also list other considerations people might want to think about—things like archival considerations or disposition instructions.
  • Naming Conventions – You can even have stipulations about how to name files in your organization—for example, we have a very specific way of titling the state agency schedules that are submitted for our review and approval. On this portion of the file plan, we could put those naming conventions. In that same vein, you can also specify content that must be included or standardized.
  • Record Copy or other designations – Is this the record copy that must be retained for the full retention period? Are there regulations about what format it must be kept in? Are there requirements for how long it must be posted on a website? All of these are considerations you can add to your file plan.
  • Specify Disposition – Does this record get transferred to an archive for long-term preservation? Does it contain confidential information that requires it to be shredded, pulped, or burned? Does it spend its active years onsite, and then get transferred to inactive storage for the rest of the retention period? The file plan allows you to get really detailed about how your records program operates, including how and when you carry out disposition activities.
  • Security Designations – Are the records subject to certain privacy laws? Are they considered Personally Identifiable Information? Maybe they are just sensitive and should be handled in an appropriate way to avoid inappropriate disclosure? You can add specific instructions for the handling of the record on your file plan.
Scrabble tiles spelling out MAKE and PLAN intersected.

Of course, these are just a few elements that you can incorporate in your organization’s file plan. The beauty of a file plan is that it can be completely customized to your government entity—the more you tailor it to your organization, the more useful it will be as a guidance document for your users.

How To Create a File Plan

There are a number of different ways to go about creating a file plan. Start with your inventory and records retention schedule(s). The inventory will tell you which departments/divisions are responsible for holding which records, help you sort out who is responsible for the record copy and who is holding convenience copies, and tell you what size and formats the records are maintained in.

From there, match up what records you have to the applicable records series on the retention schedule(s) you have created or adopted. List all the record series for each division/department/workgroup along with the locations where each record can be found. Then you can customize as you see fit! Add the elements above, along with any other considerations your organization wants to incorporate. Below is an illustration of how a record series might look on a file plan.

Slide showing the record series Employee Personnel Files, with a full description of elements found in the series, along with table listing the department (HR), location (SharePoint, shared drive, filing cabinets, State Records Center), Security (C for Confidential), Disposition (Delete/Overwrite and Shred), and Remarks about the records.

You will need to build some training in to teach users how to use the file plans. You may want to include this training in employee onboarding, so that new personnel will have an idea of how information is generally organized in your office and will know that records have a specific way of being classified and handled in your organization.

In conclusion, if the records retention schedules are a globe, then file plans are your roadmap–both documents aid you in your records management journey, but the file plan will be a guidance document that will get you where you are going with a lot more detail. Those details can be really helpful when doing records management activities like inventory, audits, and disposition.

Like it? 2

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.