Labour and National MPs were gobsmacked today when the head of the Families Commission said she could not define a policy with a Maori name because she was a middle class, white woman.

Chief Commissioner Jan Pryor was appearing before Parliament's social services committee when Labour MP Rajen Prasad, who previously did Dr Pryor's job, asked her to describe what whanau ora was after seeing the commission had a paper on it.

In response Dr Pryor talked about work that had been done on a definition and areas of its work that affected Maori.

Labour MP Annette King said the Audit Office had said the commission would be involved in promoting whanau ora and it would use some of its funding for that.

"What are you going to be promoting? ... If this is a role that you are now playing, what is it?"

Dr Pryor said it was about whanau wellbeing as defined by whanau.

National MP Chester Borrows summarised that she seemed to be saying that whanau ora was about recognising there were a number of different indicators of family wellbeing so a policy would look at how government and agencies could contribute to that.

Dr Pryor said that was true but it was important to note that whanau ora was different for Maori and Pakeha families.

Mr Borrows said her answers were disappointing and he expected the commission to have a clear definition.

"If you have bought it as a concept what's your idea of what that concept is? What's worrying to me is to not be able to get a ...straightforward answer."

Ms King wanted to know if the commission had asked Associate Social Development Minister Tariana Turia what whanau ora was, given it was her policy.

Dr Pryor said it hadn't but was working closely with the minister.

National's Hekia Parata was surprised by that and pressed Dr Pryor over it.

"I am just wondering, as an established position with crown funding, why you feel that you can't comment on something that's in your documents?"

Dr Pryor said she had given answers but was not going to provide a definition.

"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."

Ms Parata said she must be limited quite a lot in a whole range of areas.

Dr Pryor said it was important to be aware of her own background.

"I think everybody is struggling with this definition frankly."

Whanau ora has been described as a policy to bring together funding from various government departments and give it directly to families in need. A taskforce has been set up to develop a framework for government interaction with Maori service providers. Mrs Turia previously said that taskforce would help whanau determine what was in their best interests and would ensure their social service needs were meet. It was expected to report back early next year.

During the hearing Dr Prasad also questioned why the commission was "rebranding" by saying its priority had shifted to advocacy with a lesser focus on research.

Dr Prasad said it appeared the commission was doing the same work but other MPs were concerned that the advocacy would be based on out of date research.

Dr Pryor reassured MPs the commission was still doing research but had prioritised its advocacy role.

"We have cut down a little bit on our research."

She said the commission had not been asked to make the shift.