Over the course of the past two decades the need for citizen participation in state governance systems has been raised to a first order principle in orthodox development discourse. During this time there has also been a proliferation of studies demonstrating the ineffectiveness of participatory systems and practices in developing states and their predisposition to elite capture and to government manipulation. Building on this critique, a further literature has focused on the ways in which disaffected citizens have mobilised to actualise their right to basic social services and to ensure that the participatory systems in place deliver on their promise of inclusive decision making. Missing in much of this literature is a discussion of why, despite a commitment in legislation and policy, there is such a disjuncture between the expectations of citizens, and particularly the poor, of what participation might yield and the capacity or willingness of the local state, in particular, to deliver the services which have been promised. Such analysis as there is tends to reduce local governments in developing states to caricature, ruled by patrimonial rent seeking elites and bereft of any form of agency. In attempting to address this lacuna, this paper looks at the process of local level service delivery from both the demand side of citizen expectations and the supply side of local government. Based on a qualitative investigation of two case study municipalities in South Africa, the paper looks at the participatory systems set in place to promote citizen engagement at the local level and the varied factors (including political interference, administrative incapacity, oversight and accountability mechanisms, and inter-governmental coordination amongst others) which, individually and collectively, are inhibiting both effective service delivery and more meaningful public participation; the systemic shortcomings, it was found, frequently served as the triggers for protest action.