Purpose - The paper's purpose is to reopen a debate around the potential impact of narrow conceptualisations of inclusion, or participation, of service users in current mental health policy development and implementation. Design/methodology/approach - The approach here is a conceptual analysis of the continuity of "‘New Labour’ thinking" and its connection to Putnam on social capital and citizenship, whilst also offering counter critiques drawing on Bourdieu, Rose, and Arnstein. Findings - The findings show the potential for disempowerment and argue for alternative service user action, either contracting on "their own rules of engagement" or specifically taking up an oppositional stance to disempowering forms of involvement. The authors also draw attention to the influence of differing English and Scottish policy drivers which appear to offer potentially different forms of engagement. Originality/value - The paper offers a fresh analysis that particularly points to the potential value of service user groups considering alternative forms of involvement, rather than those prescribed by "Third Way" or "Big Society" thinking.