Record Keeping

This article, "Why You Should Care About Records Management", is by Terry Clayton. It was first published on the AWN web site in September 4, 2002:

Let's face it, records management isn't exactly an exciting subject and many people working in the field are not 'administratively inclined'. Most people do, however, recognise the importance of good administration and do the best they can to comply with head office guidelines or ensure that some form of basic records management is in place. This isn't always easy and there are plenty of excuses not to - like the war going on around you, the thousands of daily arrivals at your camp, or an office the size of a wardrobe. It's a tedious and time consuming chore but paying attention to basic records management can save you and your organization from some very awkward or embarrassing legal problems later on. More than one project has been closed down for failing to provide evidence of compliance with a donor's criteria for use of aid money and that's not something you want on your CV.

The Basics

Your first action should be to check with your head office and ask if they have any policy, guidelines or systems for field office records management. It's surprising how many don't. Among those who do, systems designed for the head office don't always work in the field. This often leaves field workers with the 'creative challenge' of devising a workable system to impose some sort of order on the stacks of files and papers lining your office walls.

Let's start with some simple definitions. 'Records' includes all books, papers, maps, photographs, machine-readable materials, or other documentary materials, regardless of physical form or characteristics, made or received by an organisation. Records Management does not deal with the content of the records but simply their identity and location . A records management system makes possible, "the efficient and systematic control of receipt, maintenance, use and disposition of records, including processes for and maintaining evidence and information of business activities and transactions in the form of records." [ISO 15489]

From a user's point of view, a records management system means:

  • People other than the person who filed a record or document can find what they need.
  • People using organization documents know what they can copy or keep, who they can and cannot share information with, how long they can keep any particular record, and what to do with it after use.
  • New or temporary staff can learn to manage and use the system within the first week.
  • There is little or no risk that confidential information can be accidentally disseminated.
  • Useful records and documents are not accidentally discarded.

The two basic elements of a records management system are a classification system and a retention and disposition schedule.

The classification system defines what category a record belongs to and assigns it a number or code so that it can be stored and retrieved. The basis of most classification systems is to assign number codes for categories of records (100 for Personnel, 200 for Administration, 300 for Clients, etc.). Each category can then be further broken down by additional codes (210: Finance, 210-1 Invoices, 210-2 Payments, etc.) The hard part about devising a classification system is deciding on the categories. This requires a basic systems analysis of your work. It helps to thinks in terms of 'work functions' rather than structural or staff divisions. That way, if you change your organizational structure you don't have to redesign your filing system.

The retention and disposition schedule tells people what to do with a record when it arrives, where to store it, who can use it, how to long to keep it, what to do with it when it is no longer needed and who has authority for each of these actions. Here you have to think about what to keep and what to throw away and who should have access to what files.

Considerations for security and backup are especially important in field office situations. Sorry, but if your office catches fire, floods, gets ransacked or bombed you still have to account for the money you spent. Electronic copies are easy to make and store and they are easily transportable. One set of backups should always be kept offsite. Always have a system for marking confidential or sensitive information so it can be quickly removed or destroyed in extreme situations.


Annual reports and promotional brochures don't show glossy pictures of field staff filing records. It may not be glamorous, but records management is fundamental to good management.

Want to learn more?

Aidworkers Network has compiled a primer on records management

Aidworkers Network thanks the many people who generously contributed their time in responding to our query on this topic. The responses provided the content for this section and we greatly appreciate your time and effort. Thank you!

Aid Workers Network would like to expand and improve the Records Management pages on the website with material on the following topics.

  • Manual systems (no computer needed)
  • Software for records management (guidelines for selecting, reviews)
  • Case studies (best practices, disaster recovery, lessons learned, setting up or redesigning a records management system)
  • Logistics (storage systems, getting things to and from the field, using couriers, etc.)

If you would like to volunteer to contribute to this page's information, please see the AWN volunteer guidelines and follow the directions to express interest.