Every year around 98 per cent of Estonians file their taxes electronically. Many of them in under five minutes thanks to pre-filled forms and one-click submission. This is just one example of the profound shift in Estonian government services over the past two decades. They are gathering data, making it accessible across government and for other organisations, analysing and using it to serve citizens in a more proactive way.

Ever-more connected citizens now produce and consume increasing amounts of data. Technology and techniques are improving to store and process it into actionable insights. Innovations like the blockchain allow for increased trust and certainty with digital dealings. And new cultures have formed around decentralisation, openness and transparency.

As Estonia shows, governments can leverage these shifts, along with their huge reach and resources, to impact areas as wide ranging as healthcare, schooling, finance and transport. They can learn from new customer-centric business models and ways of organising, to provide doctors with patient information in real time, or ongoing support to citizens via multiple channels, including email.

Accessing disparate data sources, making them available for access and further submissions by approved vendors, can build an ecosystem that makes government more efficient for “customers” and internal stakeholders. This also opens up new opportunities for both the public and private sector, say for the government to track epidemics or expenditure, or for private corporations to verify users.

One trend driving more proactive government is the change in consumer expectations due to the increasing proliferation of information, technological change, and the accompanying change in business models. Living, working and shopping online means many of us live in a world of information abundance. Making sense of the barrage of email, social media, websites and new data streams like fitness tracking, can be overwhelming.

The companies that have excelled have cut through the noise, taking advantage both of the signals given off by consumers wading through the digital world, as well as other contextual clues, to create models of behaviour. These proactive organisations can then tailor services — reaching out before a consumer even knows they want or need something, providing personalised reminders at opportune moments, or personalising results and offering recommendations.

As we are all increasingly connected, these companies can also offer ongoing service and in new ways. Customer service can and should be offered through multiple channels, especially online where it can be more convenient and records kept. Stored information can also be used to alert customers when their favourite products are on sale, to make recommendations, or to ease the checkout process.

In a sense many consumers and companies have formed a kind of partnership, sharing information to make sense of an increasingly complicated world. But this only works if there is trust and transparency. Estonia’s e-government shows how powerful it can be for governments to copy this approach. Leveraging what governments already know can make filing tax vastly more convenient, cutting down on errors and unintentional non-compliance. Or linking this with analytical tools to help eliminate the more intentional kind.

Governments often have access to more data, and potentially more valuable data, than anyone else. They sit at the intersection of schooling, financial and healthcare systems, transportation networks and statistical agencies. A problem with data stores this large, varied and disparate is siloisation, and the cost and security implications of making them accessible.

But it is also a huge opportunity if the government takes a customer-centric approach to delivering service. One secret for the Estonian government’s success is X-tee, their platform for sharing data across government and the private sector. There are more than 50,000 users of the system. It is how police can query several databases so that citizens don’t have to carry driver’s licenses, how the tax board is able to capture enough data for one-click tax submissions, and how other regulators can register companies and organisations in minutes.

But technological innovations have made more than existing data more accessible. They have also paved the way for even more data collection. The internet of things and new cellular networks, for instance, have drastically lowered the cost and technical barriers to placing sensors in the physical world. Giving real time data on traffic and pedestrian movements, local weather to track climate change, or air pollution for health.

Air pollution is an interesting case where research increasingly shows the health and economic impact of poor air. Governments around the world have long tracked epidemics, but there are increasingly opportunities from combining data, as the US Centre for Disease Control and Google recently did.

A proactive government, especially one that already subsidises healthcare, could see huge benefits in linking data from multiple sources, and combining that with new data sources. It could reach out to affected citizens with advice on how to avoid the worst effects, or put in place regulations on air pollution or other policies to mitigate its effects. Citizens would benefit from better health, especially at the end of life, while governments would save on healthcare.

These are just the start of what governments could achieve in an increasingly connected world. There are opportunities for service and service delivery that we can’t even dream of. What is required is a shift in thinking, mimicking what has already taken place in the private sector. A proactive organisation takes control of both its external and internal conditions. It doesn’t wait for consumers to reach out, but leverages new technologies, techniques and data to constantly experiment, improve services and create new ones.

For the past four years, we have partnered with the Queensland Government to develop proactive government services. Through our innovation sprints, offering a rigorous and very structured approach to research and innovation, involving government, industry, and academic partners, we helped create services that many Queenslanders interact with. The concept of a proactive organisation underpinned our work. You can learn more about this concept by reading The Proactive Organisation report.