Code For America fellows working in Macon have mapped the city’s transit with open source tools.

You don’t have to be a geek to believe in the power of technology to transform governments, making them more transparent, more efficient and more inclusive of citizen input. The potential is there, but adoption of digital tools has been slow compared to many other sectors.

One obvious culprit is culture. Governments tend to be risk averse; they face the constant threats of legal action, media scrutiny and public backlash. (Most of them are also in severe cost-cutting mode.) Innovators prefer to experiment, fail fast and iterate.

Code for America attempts to bridge these differences through its new fellowship program. Jennifer Pahlka started this “Peace Corps for Geeks” two years ago to embed programmers in city governments so they can work side by side with bureaucrats to develop new apps. In Boston, for example, Code for America fellows have created apps to help parents find the best schools for their children and track school buses online on snowy days. Another simple app encourages residents to help the city dig out fire hydrants buried in snow. It does so by letting them “adopt” the hydrants and name them.

VIDEO: March 2012 TED Talk by Jennifer Pahlka.

Beyond launching new tools, their goal is to shift the mind-set at City Hall – to show governments what’s possible. Projects that normally take two years can take two months and cost just a fraction. The pace of innovation can accelerate.

Summit participants devoted several sessions to discussing the role of government and the potential for public-private partnerships. Their common vision is to view government as platform, much like Apple’s iOS or Google’s Android.

Bureaucrats don’t have to innovate and build all the apps. They simply have to create the opportunity for innovation to happen. In Pahlka’s view, this means governments would function less like companies or nonprofits, and more like the Internet: permissionless, open and generative.

In particular, governments can open their records and release as much data as possible to the public. These may include crime statistics, restaurant inspections and business licenses. Governments can also collaborate and develop as well as adhere to common standards for collecting data so that the data can be mashed up, remixed and compared.

As participant Clay Johnson put it, “It’s not the numbers that matter, but their differences.”

Participants also saw government as a broker of relationships, joining different sectors that need to work together. In fact, the ability of government to help convene large, diverse numbers of people (in part by using tech for engagement tools) seemed a promising way to generate more innovative solutions to public problems – and more support for innovation generally.

If a new culture of innovation can take hold, what outcomes might we see?

The city of Boston has created the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics whose purpose is to partner with social innovators to pilot community-centered technologies and interventions. The office aggregates risk within city government to allow these experiments to advance. “When a project fails, we take the blame; when a project succeeds, the government office that partnered in the implementation takes the credit,” according to Nigel Jacob, who cochairs the office. By aggregating risk within a single office, and by building internal requirements for research and evaluation, governments are able to take more risks and to establish a context for learning from experimentation.

The low-hanging fruit for technologists interested in public engagement is to improve government services and processes. Perhaps new tools would allow citizens to give more input in budgeting and planning, report issues and track their progress online, and communicate more directly with their representatives. Some of these tools have already launched: TurboVote, seeking to make voting as easy as renting a Netflix DVD, PopVox, Public Stuff, See Click Fix, etc.

But there’s potential as well in tools that allow citizens to connect to each other and help each other, bypassing government. These tools would not only leverage a community’s assets and save taxpayer’s money, they would build them as well, increasing the community’s social capital.

New York City helped launch Change by Us to encourage citizen-led projects that would green the city. The platform has spread to Philadelphia and will launch in two other cities this year.

If such tools take hold, they can transform our very notion of government – from provider to enabler – and citizenship – from consumer to producer.

Recommendation: Support models that mobilize diverse, critical masses of people. Create a marketplace for civic solutions: – Where entrepreneurs address the most pressing challenges. – Where capital flows to solutions that achieve double bottom line results. – Where we are partnering on projects, not procuring products. – Where we are creating a local context for learning from experimentation.