This paper examines developments in governance and non-governmental public action in three diverse contexts. It is based on comparative international research that examined the role of non-governmental actors (NGAs) involved in partnership working with state actors in Bulgaria, Nicaragua and the United Kingdom. The paper draws on Crossley's (2003) development of Bourdieu's (1977) 'theory of practice' to examine the contextual factors that influence the participation of NGAs in 'new governance spaces'. It highlights three very different responses to the 'opportunities' that governance offers, which illustrate how historical processes mould civil society relation's vis-à-vis the state in highly significant ways. Although governance presents many obstacles to change, the paper concludes that the new forms of participation that are appearing in these spaces may be the foundations from which more significant change emerges.