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New Zealand: Whānau Ora Agile Government Case

By Patrick Lucas and Janine O'Flynn of the Australia and New Zealnd School of Government and the University of Melbourne


The Synopsis: What is the objective?

Aotearoa-New Zealand walks between two cultural worlds - Māori[1] and Western/Anglo traditions - which were embedded following British colonisation, what happens when social policy is designed to reflect these worlds? Māori have perpetually demanded their perspectives be listened to and acted on in public policy since colonisation, but in the past 30 years this call has been gaining broader support. In 2010, Whānau Ora health and social initiative was legislated into action. This came after years of former Minister for the Community and Voluntary Sector Hon. Dame Tariana Turia agitating for change to how Māori health and social services were delivered. For Māori, whānau[2] sits at the centre of culture and community. Whānau Ora, “family wellbeing” in Māori, aims to improve outcomes across areas such as health, education, housing, and employment, with a focus on the hauora of the whānau, as opposed to the traditional focus on individual crisis intervention. “Hauora” is a Māori philosophy of wellbeing entailing four mutually supportive dimensions: taha tinana (physical wellbeing); taha hinengaro (mental and emotional wellbeing); taha whanau (social wellbeing); and taha wairua (spiritual wellbeing) (Durie 1994).

As background, it is important to recognize that a central goal of this endeavor is to recognize in Whānau Ora the principle that whānau are best placed to develop their own plans to meet their needs and achieve their aspirations. This contrasts with past practice where services are thrust upon them in times of crisis and with little consideration for their strengths.. Thus, this radical shift towards whānau self-determination required different approaches to developing and implementing Whānau Ora. While not drawing directly from Agile methodology, Whānau Ora shares many of the principles of it, but through a particular Māori and pasifika[3] lens. This case shows us that application of the principles of agile government can be seen in delivering services in a manner that resonates in many communities and has roots in a wide variety of practices.

Introduction: Cultural and Historical Background

Māori are not only the tangata whenua but hold a unique position in New Zealand through New Zealand’s founding document, the Treaty of Waitangi. The Treaty of Waitangi[4] was signed in 1840 by some, but not all, Māori chiefs and representatives of the British Crown and set out principles for the formation of the nation state and a government.[5]  An important aspect of the Treaty is that Māori were to enjoy all rights and privileges of British subjects. Māori have perpetually demanded their perspectives be listened to and acted on in social policy since colonisation. These calls, coupled with a push for Aotearoa-New Zealand to embrace biculturalism, have gained broader support in the past 30 years and the Treaty plays a central role in governing these Māori-state relations. Whānau Ora forms one part of this.  

Whānau Ora’s core aim is to facilitate whānau to be the designers and drivers of their own positive future. Whānau is based on a Māori worldview and is often translated to ‘family’, but its meaning is more complex. It includes physical, emotional, and spiritual dimensions. It is flexible and can include immediate family as well as much wider family such as cousins, uncles, aunts, grandparents, nieces, nephews, and everyone they are related to. Whānau is part of hapū[6] and iwi[7] (larger scale tribal structures) with whakapapa[8] the organising principle.

Whānau Ora was championed by Hon. Dame Tariana Turia and the Māori Party. After gaining five of the seven available Māori seats in the New Zealand parliament and forming a minority government with the National Party, the Māori Party gained support for the whānau-first approach outlined in their political manifesto. This set the wheels in motion of legislating and implementing Whānau Ora on a national scale with broad political support in 2010.

The initiative is facilitated by ‘navigators’ who provide support, ideas, and opportunities to empower whānau to be self-determining, who work with whānau, service providers, and government. This contrasts with the individualised and transactional health and social services New Zealanders generally experience through mainstream government activity. It is a strengths-based and aspirational view of how whānau can achieve positive health and social outcomes. It is not just Māori whānau that Whānau Ora supports, but Pasifika too.[9] Likewise, in recent years Whānau Ora has become available to all New Zealand whānau, including pākehā[10]. At its conception, one of the aims of whānau self-determination was to address the endemic overrepresentation of Māori in poor social and health outcomes, such as lower life expectancy, higher rates of psychological distress, higher incarceration rates, and poorer education outcomes (Sorensen and Jensen 2017).

The Challenges

In New Zealand, mainstream social services had historically failed to meet the needs of Māori and Pasifika, as outlined in the 1988 Puao-te-Ata-tu (Day Break) report[11]. The report found that mainstream services were monocultural, with institutional racism in government agencies a significant barrier to Māori wellbeing. Government made many efforts to improve Māori outcomes in health, care and protection, and criminal justice systems, but few were effective or empowered whānau. Several localised initiatives have focused on whānau wellbeing, but Whānau Ora is the first national scale approach to Māori and Pasifika social service delivery.

Two major challenges pervade Whānau Ora:

  • The first is in measuring and evaluating its efficacy. To shift from an individual perspective of wellbeing to a whānau-centred perspective challenges both the norms of social service delivery (individual and child-centred) and the tools available to measure and evaluate outcomes. Not only is Whānau Ora innovative in its focus on whānau, but the tools to measure its success needed to be innovative and bold too. A risk is that if such tools lack nuance, they won’t capture the value of whānau wellbeing. This can be misconstrued as policy failure, rather than measurement failure.
  • The second challenge is the perception that Whānau Ora creates special and differentiated treatment for Māori and Pasifika, with these types of policy initiatives often subject to intense levels of public and political scrutiny (Smith et al. 2019).



Framing the response

Extensive consultation with Māori and Pasifika communities throughout New Zealand occurred in its formative stages of development. To this extent the initiative was largely co-produced with the intended beneficiaries. In establishing the administrative and funding structures for Whānau Ora, several programmatic features were included. Of particular note were: the public value proposition that improving whānau wellbeing can be achieved ‘’through eliminating poverty, advocating for social justice and advancing Māori social, cultural, economic and community development in the best interests of the nation’’ (Māori Party 2008 in Smith et al 2019, 506); an underpinning theory of change based on both Māori and non-Māori scholarship; evidence evaluation built into the program to assess achievement towards intended outcomes; and offering the program to all New Zealanders (Smith et al. 2019). 

Identifying principles that align with Agile

Māori and Pasifika-centred views of family wellbeing through self-determination were the guiding principles for the initiative. But Agile-type principles are evident in both the development and implementation of Whānau Ora. This shows us both the broad applicability of Agile principles, but also the importance of looking at norms and values across various cultural groups. Agile principles line up here in several ways.

  • Firstly, Whānau Ora is relentlessly mission centric: “Whānau Ora puts whānau and families in control of the services they need to work together, build on their strengths and achieve their aspirations” (Te Puni Kōkiri (Ministry of Māori Development) 2020b). From the outset the Whānau Ora taskforce insisted that service providers should work with whānau as a whole, rather than just one or two people within the whānau. Equally, the taskforce emphasised that whānau needs were based on their strengths. This contrasts with the historical deficit-based approach (Came et al. 2019), or what has colloquially been referred to as a focus on the “bad, sad and mad.” Likewise, funders, providers and whānau must work together to focus on results and outcomes, rather than inputs, outputs and negative aspects of Māori and Pasifika culture.
  • ‘Customer focused’ is another Agile principle that is observed in the initiative’s development and implementation, though it can be rephrased as ‘whānau focused’, with collaboration between providers, central government, whānau, and commissioning agencies being undertaken to achieve its outcomes.
  • Another evident Agile principle is program and outcome evaluation, to demonstrate a program’s success Whānau Ora was evaluated during its establishment and early delivery phases; likewise it was subjected to two more external reviews and evaluations as well as ongoing internal evaluations to demonstrate its success. Part of the reason for this continual demonstration of success (as well as instances of non-success) has been the ‘’climate of resistance or conservatism about whether Whānau Ora works… [where] every aspect of our work we get evaluated’’ (Smith et al. 2019, 525). Challenges abound in evaluating public policies in Indigenous contexts, with the ownership and use of research often reflecting the unequal power dynamics between groups such as Māori and the state (Althaus and Workman forthcoming). For example, a 2010 Whānau Ora report found that to meet accountability requirements, providers and officials perpetuated the deficits-based view of Māori experience through quantitative evaluation (Taskforce on Whanau-Centred Initiatives 2010).[12]

Getting down to work

After forming a minority government with the National Party in 2008, the Māori Party had the platform and political capital to establish whānau-centred social reforms, with Whānau Ora as a central pillar. After the election victory, in 2008, the Taskforce on Whānau-Centred Initiatives developed a policy framework for service providers and whānau to interact. There were two distinct phases in the implementation of Whānau Ora, which first occurred in 2010. Their key differences lay in how services were delivered.

  • Phase one (2010-2014) consisted of several key initiatives to establish the program. One of these initiatives was the Whānau Innovation Integration and Engagement fund (WIIE). This allowed whānau to make plans that will improve their lives and connect them with providers that will assist them in achieving their goals. Each whānau had $5000NZD to develop their plan and up to $20000NZD to implement it. Whānau had to apply through a legal entity, rather than being funded directly, which reflected some of the cross-cultural challenges in directly funding whānau. There were 2595 whānau who were funded to prepare a plan, with 564 of these funded to carry out some or all of their plan (Smith et al. 2019). Plans cover a broad range of areas, with the goals of each whānau differing. Two example plans are presented in appendix two.

Service delivery capability funding also occurred in this phase to allow service providers to shift to a whānau-centred mindset. Those who held service delivery contracts with district health boards and who were willing to enter formal, collaborative, and easy-to-access relationships with whānau were funded to develop programs of action. Collectives of providers were formed, with services dispersed through networks of these local collectives. These were guided by regional leadership groups comprised of community representatives and national agencies. After programs of action were funded, some of the collectives were then tasked with implementing them.

A central role in both these elements of phase one was that of the Whānau Ora navigators. They worked with whānau to help prepare plans and were a bridge between whānau and providers to improve whānau-centred delivery practices. These navigators were essential in establishing and maintaining trust in the relationships between actors in Whānau Ora. They also were key drivers in changing the mindset and practices of provider collectives to focus on whānau-centred approaches.

  • Phase two (2014-present) shifted from regionalised management to devolved funding streams from the Ministry of Māori Development (Te Puni Kōkiri) to three independent non-government commissioning agencies. These altered arrangements served to both distance funding from government control but also distance it from whānau control, too. The rationale behind these new institutional arrangements was to address the risk that Whānau Ora was becoming a co-opted process of discrete and finite contracts between the state and selected providers. Appendix one details the Whānau Ora commissioning model.

Overcoming obstacles

Whānau Ora challenged mainstream policy orthodoxy on many fronts, including that a whānau-centred approach to health and social services could be achieved on a national scale. This led to considerable and ongoing hurdles for Whānau Ora to deliver on its mission.

A central challenge is measuring success. Government agencies, amongst others, focus on what can be measured, and tend to measure what it easy. So, when a policy initiative presents challenges to perceived wisdom on how to measure success, this can create tension points, misunderstandings, and limit consensus-building. Measuring and assessing collective outcomes as opposed individual outcomes has been an ongoing challenge for Whānau Ora. A New Zealand Auditor General report found the measures and systems implemented to report on the program were confusing for all parties (OAG 2015). The desire for service providers and government agencies to have discreet, quantifiable, and easy to measure and compare data points to evaluate the efficacy of Whānau Ora contrasts with the Māori cultural desire to use qualitative research that can capture the important cultural aspects of programs (Cram 2011). Equally, qualitative evaluations were initially encouraged in Whānau Ora evaluations to create a reflexive process of learning for providers and officials to develop a whānau-centred approach.

Phase two of Whānau Ora, whereby Te Puni Kōkiri (Ministry for Māori Development) devolved funding to commissioning agencies, has encouraged state-determined and individualised outputs delivered through competitive tender. This involves providers submitting a price bid for contracts to deliver services prioritizing cost reduction rather than focussing squarely on whānau needs and self-determination. To satisfy government and service provider’s desires, a return to a deficit-based framing of Māori and Pasifika outcomes has occurred and contributed to the perpetuation of a negative view of those cultures. Conversely, it shifts away from a whānau-centred approach to traditional service delivery. This is an ongoing challenge in the program and for Indigenous-oriented policies around the world. The 2019 review of Whānau Ora found that the significant accountability regime, primarily focused on process rather than outcomes, even though the commissioning approach to service delivery is outcomes focused (Rangi 2019). In addition, there was a disproportionate amount of external scrutiny applied to Whānau Ora, relative to other social programs. Reporting tools were found to be needlessly time-consuming, not fit-for-purpose and did not capture the extent of effort or change experienced by whānau.

Like all colonised nations, there is a pervasive lack of trust and understanding of Māori views in New Zealand. While they have been shifting towards an increasingly bicultural society, suspicion of Māori-oriented policies remains common. As such, Whānau Ora is often battling to build trust, legitimacy and consensus across the political spectrum to ensure that it is an enduring policy. This needs to be done without undermining its mission to improve social outcomes of whānau through self-determination. One way this has occurred is through expanding Whānau Ora so that it is available for all New Zealanders, not just Māori and Pasifika. So while the values underpinning the initiative are Māori-centred, those who can access it don’t have to be. This also serves to shift perceptions that Whānau Ora is designed to give Māori and Pasifika peoples preferential treatment. Rather, it is acknowledging that there are different ways to serve different groups of people in a society.



Assessing results

Though it faces ongoing challenges, there is general consensus that the initiative has helped whānau who weren’t well engaged with mainstream services and has done so in a way that is tailored for the holistic wellbeing needs of whānau. Review findings in 2019 reaffirmed that Whānau Ora is an approach that works with navigators essential to its success (Rangi 2019). The New Zealand Productivity Commission has cited it as a key innovation arising from the program to support access to social services. In particular, it’s been a success for whānau with complex needs, at individual and collective levels (Smith et al. 2019, 519).  navigators

As Whānau Ora shifted from design to delivery, there have been ongoing implementation challenges. Whānau Ora is a program that crosses several departments and agencies, so broad understanding, consensus and support of the program is necessary for it to fulfill its mission. But there are difficulties ascertaining what a whānau-centred and strengths-based approach to service delivery means across the different stakeholders. Likewise, small changes in the decision-making process is eroding these principles. On the flip side, the program has proved adaptive and resilient to the political and governance realities that it operates in. For example, it was initially suggested that Whānau Ora should be governed by an independent trust that was Māori-led, worth $1 billion NZD. Instead it was led by a government agency with an annual budget of $130 million NZD. This has limited the reach of the program, with Whānau Ora being oversubscribed.

Reflections about the case’s relevance for Agile Principles

This case study presents an example of Agile principles being used in an innovative policy without explicitly being drawn on. Instead, Whānau Ora is a policy innovation that was developed in concert with Māori and Pasifika groups and imbued with a Māori worldview. In doing so, we can see that customer-centric views need not just be related to individuals, but rather groups of people can be the units that policies govern for. It also presents an example of what types of policies can emerge when genuine consultation with users occurs. Genuine consultation will inevitably bring some pushback on ceding control over the policy’s direction as consultation and collaboration can challenge perceived wisdom. But this will better serve the needs of the initiative’s users.

The control of Whānau Ora vacillates between whānau, government, and commissioning agencies. Striking the balance of control will be an ongoing challenge. This case also illustrates the power of having driven political leaders to take advantage of small windows of opportunity to challenge the status quo and deliver innovative policies, through the championing of the program by Hon. Dame Tariana Turia.

Finally, the Whānau Ora case challenges ideas on what constantly measuring and evaluating success can do to a program. In many ways, evaluations have both confirmed aspects of Whānau Ora’s success while also putting into sharp relief how the process of measuring can undermine the mission of a program by focusing on the wrong indicators and creating perverse incentives. This question of measurement and evaluation must be closely reflected on when undertaking Agile principles in policy work.



Appendix 1

Whānau Ora commissioning model (Te Puni Kōkiri (Ministry of Māori Development) 2020a)


Appendix 2

Example Plans of Whānau Ora


Source: Te Puni Kōkiri (Ministry of Māori Development) 2017, 63 & 33


Works cited

Althaus, Catherine, and Kim Workman. Forthcoming. ‘A Comparative History of Social Provision for Indigenous Australians and Māori’. In Oxford Handbook on Governance and Management for Social Policy. Oxford University Press.

Came, Heather, Tim McCreanor, Maria Haenga-Collins, and Rhonda Cornes. 2019. ‘Māori and Pasifika Leaders’ Experiences of Government Health Advisory Groups in New Zealand’. Kōtuitui: New Zealand Journal of Social Sciences Online 14 (1): 126–35. https://doi.org/10.1080/1177083X.2018.1561477.

Cram, Fiona. 2011. ‘Whānau Ora and Action Research’. Action Research, 26.

Durie, Mason. 1994. Whaiora: Māori Health Development. Auckland: Oxford University Press.

Ministerial Advisory Committee on a Maori Perspective for the Department of Social Welfare. 1988. ‘Puao Te Ata Tu (Day Break)’. Wellington, N.Z.: Department of Social Welfare. https://www.msd.govt.nz/documents/about-msd-and-our-work/publications-resources/archive/1988-puaoteatatu.pdf.

OAG, Office of the Auditor General. 2015. ‘Whānau Ora: The First Four Years’. Wellington, N.Z.: OAG.

Rangi, Caren. 2019. ‘Whānau Ora Review’. Final Report to the Minister for Whānau Ora. Independent Whānau Ora Review Panel. http://www.beehive.govt.nz/release/wh%C4%81nau-ora-review-report-released.

Smith, Verna, Charlotte Moore, Jacqueline Cumming, and Amohia Boulton. 2019. ‘Whānau Ora: An Indigenous Policy Success Story’. In Successful Public Policy: Lessons from Australia and New Zealand, edited by Joannah Luetjens, Michael Mintrom, and Paul `t Hart, 1st ed., 505–29. ANU Press. https://doi.org/10.22459/SPP.2019.21.

Sorensen, Debbie, and Seini Jensen. 2017. ‘Pasifika People in New Zealand. How Are We Doing’. Pasifika Futures, 56.

Taskforce on Whanau-Centred Initiatives. 2010. ‘Whanau Ora : Report of the Taskforce on Whanau-Centred Initiatives’. Wellington, N.Z.: Office for the Community and Voluntary Sector.

Te Puni Kōkiri (Ministry of Māori Development). 2017. ‘Whānau Ora Annual Summary Report’. Wellington, N.Z.: Te Puni Kōkiri (Ministry of Māori Development).

———. 2020a. ‘About Whānau Ora’. 2020. https://www.tpk.govt.nz/en/whakamahia/whanau-ora/about-whanau-ora/.

———. 2020b. ‘Whānau Ora’. 2020. https://www.tpk.govt.nz/en/whakamahia/whanau-ora/.

Te Tāhuhu o te Mātauranga (Ministry of Education). nd. ‘Pasifika in New Zealand’. nd. https://pasifika.tki.org.nz/LEAP/Pasifika-in-New-Zealand.


[1] Māori are the who are the indigenous peoples or ‘tangata whenua’ – the people of the land. For some introductory information see: https://teara.govt.nz/en/maori

[2] Whānau is an extended Māori family, though its meaning is more complex. For more introductory information see: https://teara.govt.nz/en/whanau-maori-and-family.

[3] Pasifika is the term used to describe Pacific Island migrants to New Zealand from Sāmoa, Tonga, the Cook Islands, Niue, Tokelau, Tuvalu, and other smaller Pacific nations (Te Tāhuhu o te Mātauranga (Ministry of Education) nd)

[4] It is important to note that there are two versions of the Treaty of Waitangi, one in English and one in Māori with each expressing, in its own language, quite different notions of what was agreed. More information on this is provided here: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/politics/treaty/the-treaty-in-brief

[5] For some introductory information on the Treaty see: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/politics/treaty/the-treaty-in-brief

[6] Political unit of Māori society comprising multiple Whānau

[7] The largest political grouping of pre-European Māori society, consists of several related hapū

[8] A line of descent/genealogy of one’s ancestors

[9] Māori make up 14.6 percent and Pasifika seven percent of New Zealand’s population.

[10] Non-Māori New Zealander

[11] The report of the Ministerial Advisory Committee on a Maori Perspective for the Department of Social Welfare (1988)  provided a Māori perspective for the Department of Social Welfare on New Zealand’s Māori and settler relations.

[12] Deficit-based narratives focus on negativity, deficiency and failure of Māori through the use of social outcome statistics, characterised as a focus on the ‘bad, sad and mad’.