Social service programmes that offer consumer choices are intended to guide service efficiency and customer satisfaction. However, little is known about how social service consumers actually make choices and how providers deliver such services. This article details the practical implementation of consumer choice in a Canadian workers? compensation vocational retraining programme. Method: Discourse analysis was conducted of in-depth interviews and focus groups with 71 injured workers and service providers, who discussed their direct experience of a vocational retraining system. Data also included procedural, policy and administrative documents. Results: Consumer choice included workers being offered choices about some service aspects, but not being able to exercise meaningful discretion. Programme cost objectives and restrictive rules and bureaucracy skewed the guidance provided to workers by service providers. If workers did not make the ``right?? choices, then the service providers were required to make choices for them. This upset workers and created tension for service providers. Conclusions: The ideal of consumer choice in a social service programme was difficult to enact, both for workers and service providers. Processes to increase quality of guidance to social service consumers and to create a systematic feedback look between system designers and consumers are recommended.