The Auditor-General, Lyn Provost, took no pleasure in issuing a disturbing report on the Whanau Ora scheme this week. She prefaces her findings with this prediction: "I have no doubt 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."

It is hard to find notable successes in her report, perhaps because the purpose of Whanau Ora - the strengthening of families - is a hard thing to measure. Her criticisms of the scheme are clearer. After four years in operation, it was hard to define what Whanau Ora is and what it has achieved. She could not get a consistent explanation of the aims of its initiatives from the agencies charged with implementing them.

Nearly a third of the $137.6 million put into Whanau Ora so far had been spent on administration, including research and evaluation, rather than the people the programme is intended to help. No wonder those who were sceptical from the outset have made much of the Auditor-General's criticisms. But Whanau Ora is not about to be abandoned, and not just because it is the flagship policy of the Maori Party.

Social support directed to families is a good idea in principle. The practical problem is obvious. The recipient family has to have, or be capable of forming, a collective body that can be trusted to put it to the right use. According to the Auditor-General, the scheme has brought together many families to produce a plan for improving their lives. Some whanau are aiming to get young people living and working on their ancestral land.

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She suggests the making of these plans together has benefits wider than the plans themselves. Family members reconnect for the project, discover the skills and resources within the whanau and learn how to set goals and manage projects and budgets to achieve them. That sounds more like the hopes of public servants than known results.

Whanau Ora is overseen by Te Puni Kokiri and is supposed to be put into effect by the Ministries of Health and Social Development. Lyn Provost has found Te Puni Kokiri requires whanau to be represented by a legal entity before it will fund their improvement plan, a requirement she questions. She has also found the Health and Social Development Ministries have not ensured their contracted service providers deal with whanau collectives rather than individuals and had no plans to change. Many of the providers are Maori or Pacific organisations set up for particular health and social programmes and they have been encouraged to work together for Whanau Ora funds, giving the needy easier access to comprehensive assistance. But it is being given in the orthodox way to individuals with dependants, not to extended families as Whanau Ora intended.

The Maori Party has a great deal more work to do to ensure its proudest policy succeeds. Its minister, Te Ururoa Flavell, needs to find a few families that have come together with its help and show its critics what can be done.