This article argues that political participation is shaped by locally distinctive 'rules-in-use', notwithstanding the socio-economic status or level of social capital in an area. It recognizes that the resources available to people, as well as the presence of social capital within communities, are potential key determinants of the different levels of local participation in localities. However, the article focuses on a third factor - the institutional rules that frame participation. Levels of participation are found to be related to the openness of the political system, the presence of a 'public value' orientation among local government managers, and the effectiveness of umbrella civic organizations. Whereas resources and social capital are not factors that can be changed with any great ease, the institutional determinants of participation are more malleable. Through case study analysis, the article shows how actors have shaped the environment within which citizens make their decisions about engagement, resulting in demonstrable effects upon levels of participation.