This paper reports on a case study which examined mental health service users and carers, public housing tenants and non-government organisations’ (NGO) participation and representation within policy processes. A particular focus was influence upon policies aimed at achieving housing outcomes for people with a psychiatric disability. The research was a case study of a period of mental health system reform in South Australia (2000–2005) and involved primarily qualitative research; interviews, focus groups and participant observation, as well as document analysis. Participants (n = 92) included service user and carer representatives, public servants from across the health, housing and disability sectors, and NGO professionals from across sectors. The study found that the community participation that existed during the reform period was largely an end in itself rather than a means for groups to shape policy processes, including housing policy. A number of barriers to service users and NGOs influencing policy agenda setting and implementation were determined and described. A range of strategies and processes to enhance community participation, representation and accountability in policy processes are recommended. These include cross-sectoral policy development and accountability mechanisms, advocacy coalitions across sectors for policy agenda setting, public forums involving both service users and professionals, and challenging ‘consumerist’ discourses on participation. Such strategies could facilitate policy debates on housing for people with a psychiatric disability, counter dominant professional interests within policy networks, and help to address community stigma.
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