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Lindsay Mitchell

The Folly that is Whanau Ora

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On the campaign trail last year, ACT leader Jamie Whyte was ridiculed for being “clueless” about Whanau Ora. This became apparent when questioned by Mihingarangi Forbes on Maori Television. But Whyte certainly wasn’t alone in his inability to describe what Whanau Ora is or does. Annette King, then Labour’s social services spokeswoman, described it as “blancmange” because “when you try to get a grasp of it, it slips through your fingers.” In 2009, when asked for a definition of Whanau Ora by parliamentarians, Families Commissioner Jan Pryor struggled, “I am putting a caveat around it for the simple fact that I am a middle class white woman. And so I don’t feel that I should be giving definitive answers.”

This week, even Lyn Provost, the Auditor General who has presumably spent many, many hours putting together a report on Whanau Ora said, “It was not easy to describe what it is or what it has achieved.”

These outsider inabilities to understand the concept may not matter if insiders did. But there is now evidence that parties directly involved disagree about aims and purposes.

Whanau Ora comprises three Initiatives: whanau plans, building provider capability and contract integration. According to the Auditor General’s report:

We were told and we understand that the aim of building providers’ capability was for them to enable whānau to take more control over their lives. The Ministry of Health does not agree that this was the aim of setting up provider collectives. The Ministry of Health told us that the purpose of provider collectives was to deliver better integrated and responsive services for individuals and whānau. The Ministry of Health’s view is that whānau plans were to enable whānau to increase control over their lives.

The emphasis (mine) highlights the differing understanding of each Initiative’s aims.

It gets worse.

Government agencies need to be able to explain what results are expected – or hoped for – and achieved from spending public funds. We could not get a consistent explanation of the aims of the Initiatives from the joint agencies or other people that we spoke to.

Confusion over who exactly Whanau Ora is intended to help remains.According to the report, “People of any ethnicity could receive funding through Whanau Ora.” Yet in respect to at least one of the three Initiatives, “Vulnerable whānau in areas of high deprivation and/or geographic isolation were to have priority for funding, as were Māori and Pacific whānau.”

Conflict over whether services should be directed to whanau or individuals persists. One of the goals of Whanau Ora was to integrate service contracts. So instead of a provider holding multiple contracts eg with DHBs and MSD, they would hold only one, the aim being to increase efficiency. However,

When we did our work, the Ministries of Health and Social Development had no plans to change to a funding model that would take advantage of the effort and $68 million paid to providers to help them shift to whānau-centred service delivery. The signals currently sent by different parts of government are, at best, mixed.

The Whanau Ora concept was launchedin 2009 with the following diagrammatic representation:

Whanau Ora

Presumably the funding for provision of the above began the process of heavy spending on “administrative” matters now under fire by the Auditor General.

Of the $137.6 million spent in the four years to 2013/14, $42.3 million – or 31% of the total – went on administration. On a positive note, budgets were not over-spent. Indeed, sometimes money was held over as planning lagged behind. Unhappily though this resulted in allocated funds never reaching the providers and families they were intended to help. The Auditor General observed that “…better planning and financial management were needed.”

Did the Auditor General have anything positive to say about her investigation into Whanau Ora?

Whānau Ora has been a success for many families who now have a plan to improve their lives. For example, some whānau are working towards getting their young people living and working on their ancestral land. The government spending to achieve this has been small, but the importance for the whānau is significant.

Bringing whānau members together to prepare plans seems to have had benefits that are wider than the plans themselves. For example, reconnected whānau members not only provide each other with support but have also learned where skills and expertise already lie within the whānau. Some whānau have also gained shared experience in goal setting, planning, and managing projects and budgets to achieve their goals.

She also writes,

I have no doubt that some commentators will make light of the successes described in this report and make much of the criticisms. However, an innovative idea should not be abandoned just because of implementation problems. I earnestly hope that those involved with the next phase of Whānau Ora are able to take my criticisms on board and learn from them.
Unfortunately, the negative criticisms outnumber the positive. While I sympathise with any ideas intended to improve Maori outcomes (the Auditor General’s sentiment I am guessing) this ‘programme’ is  up against it. Not only is Whanau Ora a nightmare of bureaucratese-framed structures and concepts, it’s operating against a backdrop of decades of entrenched welfarism.

Whanau Ora is largely bottom- of- the- cliff stuff.  Social services are in high demand due to the fall-out from dysfunctional inter-generational state dependence. In the scheme of things $34 million annually isn’t a huge amount of money. With Maori making up 35 percent of working age beneficiaries, it represents only about 1 percent of the benefit income going into Maori homes. The disproportionate reliance of Maori on benefits remains the over-riding problem.

Guaranteed weekly payments from WINZ absolve people from working for a living and having positive, constructive, co-dependent relationships with other whanau members. Benefits allow people to live outside of functioning society. Health and welfare services evolve as a response to this dysfunction. Services may ameliorate some of the problems but a significant reduction cannot be possible while the prime driver – benefits – remain unchanged (even with welfare reform, work obligations are impossible to enforce in towns and rural areas where jobs are non-existent).

I must confess some prejudice against the Whanau Ora concept because it hailed from Maori Party co-leader, Tariana Turia, who would never accept that the Maori teenage childbirth and ensuing heavy reliance of Maori mothers on welfare were undesirable. Her determination not to sweat the big stuff made me intolerant of her band-aid brainwaves.

The future for Whanau Ora? Not bright I fear. There is an obvious antipathy to changing service delivery from the Ministry of Health, and when public servants aren’t behind an initiative 100 percent, what chance of success? Sad really.

The whole exercise only goes to demonstrate yet again why big government is bad government.