Transparency theatre

Saying the thing is not doing the thing

Terminology matters. If you and I have a term that we both know refers to the same concept, we can have more informed discussions. Sometimes, though, we suffer a paucity of language—especially in “newer” fields.1

Lately I’ve encountered a situation for which I’ve lacked a term. To understand this, we need some context about transparency and contracts in the Government of Canada.


Many governments like to tout transparency as a defining feature of their administration. To support this goal, there’s been a significant push for governments to proactively publish information that is of interest to the public—ideally, as much information as can be distributed.

Sometimes, governments have a policy-derived obligation to publish certain information. In Canada, the federal government is required to proactively disclose any contracts or contract amendments valued at over $10,000.

Departments across the federal government have a mix of reporting techniques. For many years—and for some departments, to this day—departments released information about contracts on a website such as this one, from the Department of Justice. A long list of quarters leads to a long list of contracts, and each contract page yields data about that contract.

For those interested in government contracting at a large scale, this system has no simple method to access the details for multiple or all contracts at once. You need to page through to each contract and note the data yourself, or write a tool that does this for you.

Recently, some departments have moved to a form of disclosure that is far more supportive of those interested in contract details at scale. Departments are disclosing their contracts via a dataset at The dataset still has some problems, but it’s a step in the right direction.

The situation

The situation for which I lack a term is this: when governments claim to be transparent by sharing information in ways similar to the first contract disclosure method—publishing lots of data, yes, but not in ways that are widely useful—are they really being transparent?

In the case of information like contracts, the greatest value in their disclosure comes from the potential to analyse them at scale. If information isn’t shared in the format best suited to help its use, it’s tough to say that that information has been transparently shared: if it’s not usable, it’s not published.

So to return to the importance of terminology, I stumbled the other day on the term “transparency theatre” to help describe such a situation. When organisations professing transparency act in ways that seem transparent, but fail to be useful when scrutinized, they are performing transparency theatre.

I thought this up in the shower, very excited about the term. Of course, it turns out I wasn’t the first. Ellen Miller wrote about this concept at the Sunlight Foundation. Miller was also quoted in a longer piece on open government, referring again to this term.

Beyond these few uses, a Google search yields few results. Is it not awesomly alliterative enough? I think it’s a good candidate for broader usage. Doubtless there are many other examples similar to the situation I’ve laid out herein. Perhaps they’d benefit from the label of transparency theatre, too.

Something to mull over.

Thanks to Sean for reading over a draft. You can read our discussion at GitHub.

  1. Whether or not these fields are truly novel is debatable. We tend to obscure past progress in favour of claiming that current conversations are truly groundbreaking and therefore, somehow, inherently more important. I digress. (But that’s what footnotes are for!)