woman with microphones held up to have her say

Good public consultation needs a framework to ensure it is involving and fairly considering the response of consultees.

A lawful consultation in the UK needs to adhere to the four Gunning Principles. These principles ensure every consultation is transparent, fair and both listens to and considers consultee responses.

What are the Gunning Principles?

The Gunning Principles are four principles that every public consultation must adhere to in the UK to ensure that they are carried out fairly.

They first emerged in 1985, proposed by Stephen Sedley QC during a landmark case R v Borough of Brent ex parte Gunning.  Since then, these principles have been the guiding framework for public consultations, and are recognised as essential in determining their lawfulness.

The Gunning Principles in Law

hand writing a form on desk for public consultation

While not necessarily a strict legal requirement, consultations that don’t adhere to these four Gunning Principles are subject to judicial review.

This was later reinforced by two other landmark cases in British Law. In 2001, a health authority made a decision on a nursing home closure after only giving residents a short consultation window that lacked relevant expert information.

13 years later in 2014, the British Supreme Court upheld a judgement that a public consultation on the closure of day care centres for the elderly and disabled in the London Borough of Haringey was unlawful. This was due to its lack of transparency and fairness in the consultation and decision making process.

Since these two judgements, the four Gunning Principles have become firmly entrenched in the framework for fair public consultation.

The Four Gunning Principles for Public Consultation:

The gunning criteria for public consultations as laid out in 1985 are:

  • Gunning Principle 1: Consultations must occur while proposals are still at a formative stage.
  • Gunning Principle 2: Sufficient information needs to be supplied for the public to give the consultation ‘intelligent consideration’.
  • Gunning Principle 3: There needs to be an adequate time for the consultees to consider the proposal and respond.
  • Gunning Principle 4: Conscientious consideration must be given to the consultation responses before decisions are made.

In a nutshell, public consultations need to take place before any decisions are made by stakeholders, information should be readily available in accessible language, consultees should have time to give a considered response, and stakeholders should be able to prove that those responses were given due care and consideration.

Now, with public consultations largely taking place online, our approach to the Gunning Principles needed to change. Over the last five years, judicial reviews of the Gunning Principles have focused more heavily on whether Gunning Principle four has been fairly adhered to.

In the South-West, for example, it was found that Bristol City Council had failed to consult sufficiently on special education needs cuts. Instead of tackling the problem specifically, it had formed part of a wider general consultation on budget, meaning the consultation response wasn’t given sufficient conscientious consideration.

On the other hand, public bodies like NHS England have taken the Gunning Principles a step further, developing ten mandatory principles for public participation in health care.

How Gunning Principles Have Evolved In The Digital Age

man sat at desk, computer in background opened to Citizen Space and he's holding a phone that asks "What makes a good question?"

Now with easy online accessibility for most, public consultations usually have a huge digital component. As such, the Gunning Principles have evolved to reflect the modern era, and accommodate the shift online.

Online platforms like Citizen Space now present stakeholders with easier methods of streamlining consultations and complying with best practices. However, we still can’t forget that not everyone has good digital literacy skills, or can easily access online information. That’s why it’s important to ensure all demographics have a chance to participate as consultees.

That’s the bad news, but overall, the advent of citizen engagement platforms has led to a fairer, more accessible and more transparent consultation process for all. There’s 24 hour access, they meet accessibility standards, and stakeholders ultimately have the opportunity to reach far more consultees than traditional paper-based methods; with higher chance of a response too.

Nowadays, it would be insensible to not use a platform like Citizen Space as part of your public consultation process. 

Best Practices in Online Public Consultation

The Gunning Principles fundamentally ensure transparency, accessibility, ability to respond and fairness are key parts of any public consultation.

To achieve this its essential any public body running a formal consultation does the following:

  • Ensure all information is readily available, and is written in plain English.
  • Communicate clear timelines, deadlines and expected outcomes.
  • Ensure broad stakeholder and community engagement by conducting appropriate outreach to key demographics.
  • Ensure your consultation complies with accessibility standards.
  • Remove barriers to participation by providing multiple options for engagement.
  • Ensure public body or government transparency is a key part of the process.
  • Provide evidence that consultees input has been considered and included in the decision-making process.

Using Citizen Space for Online Consultations

woman sat at desk with laptop open to Citizen Space page

Luckily, as with most things in life, the internet has made the public consultation process easier. Rather than hard-to-process documents with jargon-filled language, stakeholders can now share information easily and in digestible chunks for effective public engagement.

Using Citizen Space, central and local government, and public bodies can ensure all information is easily accessible and transparent to consultees. When complete, they can publish clear outcomes that demonstrate conscientious consideration occurred in line with Gunning Principle 4.

A good example of this is when Citizen Space was used for an Independent Review of Learning Disability and Autism in the Mental Health Act in 2019.

Using the four Gunning Principles for public consultation in an Independent Review of Learning Disability and Autism in the Mental Health Act

Given the nature of this public consultation, sensitivity and transparency with consultees was of paramount importance.

As people with disabilities or lived experiences were the key targets for public involvement, they needed a platform that ensured compliance with accessibility standards was of paramount importance. Citizen Space provided surveys and documentation in easy-read formats to ensure a fair consultation that followed the Gunning Principles.

Although they received mixed responses from consultees, the consultation process allowed them to see that the public believed overall guidance and decision-making was heading in the right direction.

 Using tools like Citizen Space makes adhering to the four Gunning Principles easy. As a key part of public consultations, the Gunning Principles not only represent a lawful necessity in the consultation process, but one that should be a moral imperative for anyone creating public policy.   

Consultations and policy advancement only work if they respect and listen to the views of all members of the impacted community. By moving the process online, and respecting the spirit of the four Gunning Principles, you’re ensuring your public body is meaningfully moving forward into the digital age in a way that shows consideration to all.