It’s been a year in development, and some of you will have heard about it already, but today sees the formal launch of our new e-Consultation and online opinion research platform, Opinion Suite.

Opinion Suite is a new approach to online consultation and opinion research software, and we’re really excited about it. Here’s why;

1. Opinion Suite is open source

We’re getting rid of the idea of license fees or costly restrictions on the number of users or organisations and instead sharing the source code for the system freely on the web.

This means people can get us to set them up an Opinion Suite system if they want, host it, support it, customise it or whatever they want. But if they want someone else to do that for them, they can, subject of course to the terms of open source software.

2. Opinion Suite is built from scratch

For us online consultation and opinion research is a core business, not an add on. We’ve been doing this for over 7 years now, and have learned a lot.

So, when it came to building Opinion Suite, we started back at first principles, designing a system from the ground up that incorporates everything we’ve learned, and everything our clients have learned over the years.

This means Opinion Suite hasn’t been hacked around and developed in a piecemeal fashion over time, it’s been tested to destruction in our studio and is rock solid, with clean code, bang up to date usability and accessibility, and genuinely intuitive interfaces.

3. Opinion Suite is about engagement

Too many e-consultation systems have grown up to focus on internal processes and have lost sight of the real reason behind e-consultation, broadening access to decision making across the public and stakeholder groups.

Opinion Suite of course provides all the internal process management workflows you would expect from an e-consultation system, but it’s been designed to maximise public and stakeholder engagement with the actual consultation content at every stage.

We’ve built in sophisticated RSS feed functionality that means anyone anywhere can take a feed of the content from the system and display it on their own website. A partner organisation can display the consultations their users may be interested in through their own website quickly and easily, a councillor could have all the consultations in their ward automatically published on their blog, youth council members can even share consultations with friends automatically through Facebook if they want.

We’re going to be adding more to the public engagement side of e-consultation through Opinion Suite over the coming months, but we’re pretty excited about the possibilities we’ve already opened up with it.

4. Opinion Suite is meant to be customised

One reason we’ve moved away from ‘boxed software’ (deploying the same system for many different clients) is that we’ve found it just doesn’t work as well as a more flexible approach.

Every client is different, every client has their own functionalities they need, and others that they never will. In practice a one size fits all approach in tends to mean that everyone ends up with a size that doesn’t really fit them that well.

So, whilst we’ve built Opinion Suite to cover the most commonly needed functionalities across a wide range of organisations, we’ve also built it so it can be easily customised from the start.

We’ve researched everything each module of the system can possibly do, and how it can best do it, so we’re confident that there isn’t an online consultation need that can’t be met through customising Opinion Suite.

Of course, successful online consultation often isn’t about software as much as how best to use it, so alongside the Opinion Suite software, we’re here to help people understand how best to achieve what they want, and how sometimes some software options may actually not be the answer.

5. Opinion Suite is about sharing

With all of the customisation possibilities available within Opinion Suite, we’re expecting what it can do to grow rapidly as people’s knowledge grows and the internet keeps on evolving.

As new functionalities and processes are developed, we want to be able to share these with clients to enable everyone to benefit from the work of all.

6. Opinion Suite is about creating real value

For us, online consultation has to work, or there’s no point in doing it. Since we’ve got rid of license fees, and just get paid for the work we do on the system, we have to make sure that we’re providing real value for all of our clients. Rather than them spending money for the ‘privilege’ of licensing software, we want clients instead to spend money on understanding how best to achieve what they want online and invest in making sure that happens.

Since you’re free to find someone else to support Opinion Suite for you, we’ve got a real incentive to make sure we provide you with excellent service at all times, be it customisation, hosting, data management or consultancy.

7. What does Opinion Suite do then?

So far, Opinion Suite has;

  • A consultation finder database – developed in for and conjunction with Bristol City Council, the acknowledged leader in this field.
  • An online survey tool – currently being used by a number of government departments and public bodies, now being rolled out for local authority clients
  • Opinion Tracker – a system for tracking and analysing conversation on any topic around the web, gaining genuine meaning from the conversations people are already having about you.

Over the next few months Opinion suite will have;

  • A stakeholder database – a complete participation management system, based on best practice from some of the web’s most popular sites.
  • More conversation spaces – unless you’ve already got a solid foundation for online discussion, you almost certainly don’t want a discussion forum if you want to build genuine dialogue. Opinion Suite is going to incorporate a lot of the work we’ve been doing over the last few years in more effective forms of creating conversation online.

Other things we know Opinion Suite could do;

  • LDF Consultation management – the money paid for these systems is ridiculous, and we’d be keen to hear from someone interested in incorporating LDF consultations into Opinion Suite, it’s actually not that difficult.

Update: in 2010 Opinion Suite changed name to Citizen Space – following a significant collaboration with the UK Government to develop the system as a platform for consultation and engagement.

Citizen Space has been adopted by over 30 public sector organisations, including central government, local authorities, police authorities, the NHS and the BBC Trust. For more information, visit the Citizen Space website, or get in touch.