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 in this era of globalisation? How do changing contexts and conditions affect the entry points through which actors in civil society, especially the poor or those working with the poor, can exercise voice and influence in critical aspects of social care, be they in the areas of health, education, welfare, social security, programmes for the disabled, low-income housing, or other significant social policy arenas?
In this paper, we take up these questions. We explore 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. In doing so, we argue that the concept of ‘social citizenship’ that has often underpinned considerations of social welfare should be expanded to include not only concepts of social rights, but also of social responsibilities and social accountability through direct forms of democratic governance.
Repositioning participation in the context of debates on citizenship and agency, we review strategies that have been used to strengthen participation in social policy and social provisioning. We examine in turn four approaches to participation. These include: (a) those in which beneficiaries of social services are consulted as users or consumers, (b) those that have emphasised self-provisioning through civil society,(c) social and advocacy movements through which citizens have advocated for social provisioning from the state, as a social right, and, (d) lastly, accountability approaches which emphasise new relationships between service providers and citizens through their active participation in processes of democratic governance.
Reflecting on these approaches, we suggest that the more functional concepts of participation, through which beneficiaries participate as users or consumers of pre-determined public services, are of limited utility. Not only do they fail to include people in broader aspects of the policy process, but they also ignore their contribution to self-provisioning outside formal government arenas. Most importantly, they fail to recognise or realise the potential of more active citizen engagement in making and shaping social policy and with it opportunities for enhanced service responsiveness, transparency and accountability.