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Keywords:

  • homelessness;
  • mental health;
  • parity of participation;
  • service users;
  • social justice

Models of service-user participation have derived from citizenship or consumerist agendas, neither of which has achieved the structural reforms important for the most marginalised social work clients. This article proposes Fraser's model of ‘parity of participation’ as an appropriately multifaceted frame for capturing the social justice aspirations of service-user participation. A qualitative case study compared the experiences and expectations of people who had used Australian mental health services with a sample who had used Australian homelessness services to examine their expectations of participation at individual and representative levels. The findings reinforce concerns from Fraser's research about the tendency for identity-based consumerist notions of participation to reify group identity. This leads to tokenistic service-user involvement strategies that have little impact on participation at a structural level. Fraser's parity of participation is shown to have untested potential to reshape service-user participation to meet the social justice aspirations of social work clients.

Key Practitioner Message: ● Innovative, service-user driven strategies for collaboration will be those which challenge existing power structures;Service users want their contributions to decision making to generate identifiable change in the system of social services;The success of service-user participation strategies might be the extent to which political, economic and cultural opportunities are enhanced.