How do ordinary people, especially poor people, affect the social policies that in turn affect their well-being? What is the role of citizen participation in social policy formation and implementation? How do changing contexts and conditions affect the entry points through which actors in civil society, especially the poor, can exercise their voice and influence in critical social policy arenas? State centred conceptions of social policy often view citizens as recipients of programmes, whilst market led versions focus on the clients of social welfare as consumers who participate through choice of services. This paper explores a view that argues for an approach to social policy that sees citizens not only as users or choosers, but as active participants who engage in making and shaping social policy and social provisioning. The authors suggest that changing concepts and conditions, such as demographic change, the privatisation of provisioning and globalisation, challenge traditional approaches to participation in social policy. These concepts are discussed within a broader historical review of the ways that ordinary people have participated in policy, and it is argued that participation must be repositioned in the light of current reality which offers new spaces, as well as new constraints, for citizen engagement.