A Whanau Ora puzzle

By Eric Crampton 14/05/2015

I’ve been in Wellington for the better part of a year now. I’ve attended a few different sessions from various Ministries on topics relating to stuff we’re working on or might work on here at the Initiative.

I’ve never properly understood what Whanau Ora, the new(ish) welfare delivery system, was or how it worked. And so I’d ask around a bit at sessions where folks might know; I never got any clear answer on whether it was working out or how it was being evaluated.

The Auditor General also seems puzzled: “It was not easy to describe what it is or what it has achieved.”

Ok, so nobody really knows, and that’s why I only ever got vague answers.

Usually this means that nobody bothered setting up a budget for project evaluation or thought about how to assess outcomes at the outset. You need to build evaluation in at the start.

But the Auditor General also says this:

Nearly a third of the total spending was on administration (including research and evaluation). In my view, Te Puni Kōkiri could have spent a greater proportion of funds on those people – whānau and providers – who Whānau Ora was meant to help.

How do you spend a third of your budget on administration, $42.3 million, including research and evaluation, and still wind up with the Auditor General saying:

We could not get a consistent explanation of the aims of the initiatives in Whānau Ora from the joint agencies or other people that we spoke to. So far, the situation has been unclear and confusing to many of the public entities and whānau. Government agencies need to be able to explain what results are expected – or hoped for – and achieved from spending public funds. Clearly understood aims generally lead to clear accountability and good reporting. Good reporting is particularly important with innovation, because it allows changes to be made when required.

The Auditor General’s right that these kinds of innovative initiatives shouldn’t be abandoned. But it is a bit surprising that a forty million dollar administrative structure couldn’t set up some initial sensible evaluation criteria and methods, with proper reporting follow-through.

That’s the puzzle for me. Not spending anything on evaluation – I can understand that. Spending a pile on admin and evaluation, and getting Auditor General reports like this one – that’s a bit more of a puzzle.