Detailed fieldwork in São Paulo, Brazil, shows that the conventional understanding of civil society and citizen participation is flawed in two major ways. The dominant focus on the participation of individual citizens is misplaced, as it is civil organizations representing different sectors of the poor that participate in substantial numbers in participatory institutions. The civil society approach in international development suggests that the most effective voice of the poor in policy making comes from civil society organizations (CSOs) that are independent of political parties and state agencies. Across different participatory institutions in São Paulo, however, the most active representatives of the poor are those well connected to conventional political actors – political parties and state agencies. This connection between civil and political actors suggests the need for a ‘polity-centered’ approach to understanding issues of participation and representation.