What we've learned about families and whanau

14 December 2017

Since 2004*, the Families Commission and, more recently, Superu have done a significant amount of research on what works to improve outcomes for families and whanau, which we'd like to share with you. While some of this may look like 'good-old common sense' it's important that it's based on research and evidence, which you'll find here. 

Large shares of health, housing, care and protection services are provided by families and whanau, and generally neither measured nor accounted for in policy analysis. Below is a summary of In Focus: What we've learned about families and whanau.


What we've learned about the nature of families and whanau

Families play a pivotal role in our society

  • Being part of a family is the most significant socialising influence in a person's early life. Given that childhood disadvantage strongly predicts negative adult life outcomes, a high level of family wellbeing is important both for individuals and New Zealand.
  • Most families in New Zealand are faring well, however a portion don't do so well. This is particularly the case for a portion of single-parent families and for some families from non-European ethnic groups.
  • Factors within a family - like family violence, household over-crowding and low household income - can place family members at risk.

Families in New Zealand are diverse

  • Families are getting smaller, older and more ethnically diverse. Although couples with children are still the most common household type they are decreasing as a proportion of the total number of households as the number of one-parent, couple only and single person households increases.
  • What works for families with an individualistic, independent view of the world (typical of Western cultures) isn't the same as for collectivist, interdependent families (usually found in non-Western cultures). This represents challenges to policymakers and for the delivery of services. 

Many see 'whanau' as a distinct concept

  • 'Whanau' as a distinctive concept is embedded within the context of kaupapa Maori.
  • Supporting and strengthening whanau wellbeing is complex and needs a multifaceted approach that includes a focus on social and educational factors as well as economic ones.


What we've learned about working with families and whanau

Change is achieved through families and whanau, with support as needed

  • Although changing behaviour may be difficult and take time, best practice means allowing families and whanau to drive changes, engage in their own solutions and become empowered.
  • There needs to be a focus on what actually works to support this change and the needs of New Zealand's diverse population.

Making a difference for vulnerable families and whanau requires whole-family, tailored and culturally prelavent approaches

  • What works for families and whanau is being able to have their situation considered as a whole, with the family or whanau - not a government agency - at the centre.
  • Although there is limited research on the outcomes of integrated social services, fragmented services are associated with poor outcomes especially for children and young people.

We need to look at community and societal interventions as well as those focused on individuals and families

  • Successfully improving social outcomes requires a focus on people and knowing what to do - and when - to make a difference.
  • Individuals live within families and whanau, who in turn live within wider society. Improving outcomes requires a focus on all levels.
  • Central government can best support community-level initiatives by removing bureaucratic barriers, collaborating, enhancing capability at both community and government levels, investing strategically and creating a supportive policy context.

To be successful, policies and programmes must be sources in, or informed by, te ao Maori

  • The Crown-Maori partnership is constantly evolving. Many of these relationships articulate the need for partnership in design, delivery and evaluation of social services.

We shouldn't just focus on risk. Resilience is critical - it is a process and can be built and supported

  • Many families cope successfully with difficult situations and can adapt according to their circumstances.
  • It's possible to build resilience. Research identifies protective factors such as family problem solving, effective communication, equality, shared beliefs, flexibility, truthfulness, hope, social support, and physical and emotional health.
  • Understanding the processes underlying resilience can inform and help target responses to vulnerable families.

Transitions are important - they can be periods of difficulty and provide an opportunity to intervene

  • Most people pass through predictable transition points, like moving from primary to secondary school and from school to work. Some also experience unexpected transitions, such as divorce. Early intervention at key transition points is needed so that people are supported and don't miss out on the services they need, especially when experiencing unexpected transitions.


What we've learned about creating a social services system that uses evidence

Government agency culture is critical and it can work against improving outcomes

  • It's important for families and whanau to be treated with respect: to be believed, understood and treated with dignity. Often, they feel they are not.
  • Place families at the centre of the system, not a government agency.
  • Ensure the operational policy settings of different government agencies align rather than work against one another.

We need to understand what we're trying to improve

  • If policies and services are based on outdated assumptions they are unlikely to be effective.

On-the-ground knowledge is essential - we need to draw on a broader range of evidence

  • New Zealand is a diverse society.  We need policies, programmes and services that reflect this diversity and work for all. 
  • In government decision-making, there needs to be greater understanding of what is happening outside government.

We have more information and knowledge that we use and we need to be better at sharing it

  • Knowledge and on-the-ground know-how are not drawn on to the extent possible when developing new policies and programmes.

Government agency culture and capability are critical for 'evidence-informed' to become the norm

  • Agencies and others have to want to use evidence. The barriers to doing so need to be removed and capability developed. This takes strong leadership.
  • Government must work with and understand the community perspective.
  • There are inconsistent levels of capability to use evidence among both government agencies and the community and voluntary sector.

We are ad-hoc in our use of evidence and applying more structured processes could be useful

  • We should explore examples that have been tried overseas. Some jurisdictions have introduced evaluation policies that we could learn from.

We need to pay more attention to implementation and to transferability and scaling

  • Government agencies have amassed a lot of research knowledge about what works but outcomes haven't necessarily improved. This is because there is often a gap between the evidence of what works in theory and what is delivered in practice.
  • Continuous improvement is an important aspect of implementation and delivery.

We need to focus on existing spending as well as new money

  • We have a tendency to apply our evidence-informed thinking to new investments, however most government spending is on existing services and programmes.

An overreliance on big data may mean we miss things, limiting our effectiveness

  • Big data on its own doesn't address questions that lead to understanding both the 'why' and 'how' - research and evaluation are needed.

There are gaps in our data that we urgently need to fill

  • 'Family', 'whanau' and 'wellbeing' are difficult concepts to define, measure and collect good data on. Our family and whanau wellbeing frameworks provide a foundation.
  • While there is a solid body of qualitative research on whanau wellbeing, there is a serious lack of quantitative evidence about whanau, hapu and iwi wellbeing.
  • The collection of new data, such as Te Kupenga, and the use of new technologies provides us all with an opportunity to harness relevant data and information in a way that works best for those with whom we work.


*The Families Commission was established in 2004 and in 2014 became the Social Policy Evaluation and Research Unit, or Superu for short.

Last update: 21 Dec 2017