Angie Tangaere & Penny Hagen

This blog is the second in a series of reflections and projections from the Lab and the teams that we work with about equity, systems health and systems change in the context of COVID-19.

Originally published by The Auckland Co-Design Lab. Republished with permission.

Over the last four weeks (and prior) we’ve witnessed an incredible coming together of a range of responses and actions to protect New Zealanders from COVID-19 and to mitigate the ongoing impacts of social distancing, restrictions on mobility and income loss. This has, impressively, included an array of government, iwi, marae, organisational, philanthropic, business, community, neighbourhood and whānau responses and actions.

Strong government leadership, direction and delivery has been absolutely critical and, at the same time, support for families and leadership that’s made the difference on the ground has come from many places: marae and iwi, whānau, neighbourhoods, kura, schools, community organisations as well as business and philanthropy. Those with assets to share have needed to come together with those with local connections, community organisations and networks to ensure resources actually get into people’s homes. We have seen businesses collaborating in new ways, technology companies have come on board to offer support and access to homes across the region. Platforms to connect people and resources have appeared almost instantly. We have seen some excellent examples of partnership and distribution of power, foregrounding of iwi and marae leadership and Māori-led responses. We have also seen some high trust responses by the government to provide and release flexible funding and support.

As we move into the recovery phase, it is critical that government continues to value, support and strengthen the social capital, local responses and indigenous leadership that has been foundational to making it through this incredibly challenging period.

For TSI, this experience has been a visible lesson in what collaboration across the system can look like when we are aligned on a common goal. It has also demonstrated that there are practices, knowledge, resources, skills, strengths and people distributed across the system that have key roles to play in enabling wellbeing outcomes.

We are interested in how we continue to grow and support this enabling form of government as we move more intentionally into the rebuild and regeneration phase. We want to support a government response that continues to value and support locally led (not just locally delivered) solutions. In Tāmaki Makaurau at least, the role of local government as a supportive platform for some of this, including understanding local needs, and inviting responses and collaborations across traditional silos has been confirmed.

We believe the current crisis has created a burning platform for whānau-led innovation where government, community and organisational resources and power is shared in ways that enable culturally grounded, local responses. Such responses sit alongside, complement and potentially disrupt conventional service delivery and programmatic responses.


It goes without saying that the challenges we already had relating to wellbeing will be compounded by the effects of COVID-19. This is especially true in regions and households already burdened by the ongoing effects of colonisation, inter-generational poverty and systemic racism.

The colonial history of Aotearoa New Zealand and current structural inequity makes it even more important that our response now does not double down on the things that we know weren’t working for communities like South Auckland before COVID-19.

Part of this is about ensuring our responses as local and central government are not limited to a traditional repertoire of programmes and services defined from the top down through arms-length policy processes, with accompanying pre-prescribed outcomes and measures. We already know that for a majority of whānau experiencing the most stress and disparity, conventional services and programmes aren’t going to resolve the underlying drivers of inequity. Services are also not our only, or necessarily our most effective, way to support whānau wellbeing outcomes.

Our experience with COVID-19 has further highlighted the value of relationships and the role of strong social fabric and resilient community ties in order to enable effective responses. It has also shown up the weakness of our past focus on investing in services and service delivery only – over capacity and social and technical ‘infrastructure’. The efforts of community organisations and marae to respond have been hampered by a thin resource base when it comes to overall capacity – be it leadership, resourcing or technical infrastructure – many needing to draw down on their personal relational capital and pockets to make things happen.

What is the opportunity to work more in the middle space?

What is the opportunity to work more in the middle space?

Going beyond services

In South Auckland and across Aotearoa there are a range of excellent and critical services that are provided by highly skilled (and often under resourced) providers and practitioners. But the current service and programme model we are most familiar with means that most of the funding, resource and ultimately power is tied up in pre-defined programmes and services. For many whānau, the best opportunities to connect and grow social capital, build confidence and problem solve happens away from this service system.

Our focus on programmes and services, which are tangible and easier to track, has meant less attention being paid to the messier but more impactful spaces of investment in prevention and healing, including addressing the underlying environmental conditions, structures or social determinants that drive the issues in the first place. Too often, we focus on crisis support rather than enhancing protective factors in a community. The outcomes we track and fund are not always those that matter to whānau.

We believe government has a critical role to play in clearly articulating the challenges it thinks needs to be solved, but the key to sustainable gains in wellbeing lies in enabling communities to be part of identifying and developing the possible solutions that will work for their context.

As suggested in the sketch above, our interest is in testing, building, supporting and learning about approaches that operate ‘in the middle’ between the spaces of government and neighbourhoods. Alongside our partners (many of whom are already leaders in this space) we are exploring different ways to configure existing assets and resources, drawing upon the resources and expertise of both the conventional service delivery system and community. We hope to see the activity and collaboration that has been demonstrated in this middle space over the last four weeks valued, sustained and supported.

The promise of whanau-led approaches 

The unfolding impacts of COVID-19 makes the need to find new ways of working more urgent. The Lab and TSI are focused on supporting and sharing learning from government experimentation and new commissioning models that enable local, community-led responses and compelling whānau-led alternatives to pre-COVID-19 service models. Especially those that share and configure resource in such a way as to contribute to growing and sustaining the social capital and capacity of whānau and communities involved.

A range of whānau-led approaches or their equivalent here and overseas continue to demonstrate the strengths and capacities already within homes and communities. These approaches have the potential to come together in ways that build whānau capacity to lead their own fit-for-purpose solutions for complex issues.

Now is the time to grow the system capacity to support responses led by whānau – where the supports given may not be a service, but a way of connecting and working together that enhances people’s capacity to solve their own challenges. SKIP, Housing First, Kootuitui Ko Huiamano, Talking Matters and Family by Family are all whānau to whānau models that also interact with more structured resources, and are enabled by the system’s resources, structures and intentionality.

Whanaungatanga, manaakitanga and ako sit at the heart of these approaches, which build the capacity and capital of whānau through the process. As such, they have the power to achieve more transformational outcomes for whānau than traditional service-based approaches that tend to address specific wellbeing issues in isolation, often with a focus on individuals.

Government can’t and doesn’t need to be fixing and responding to all the issues, but how do we tautoko whānau and community capacity to strengthen, reduce stress, and innovate?

This includes distributing risk and different forms of partnerships and commissioning models.

We need to continue to grow this capacity as it’s not something our systems do well yet, in part due to funding being historically siloed and planning processes fragmented across government.


  • What new practices and supports are emerging from the current context that can be supported as examples of whānau-led innovation ?

  • What are the compelling alternatives to traditional service based approaches that grow capacity in community, rather than drain it?

  • How can we work in ways that share the load and risk across government and institutions, not just pushing it down to communities?

We know there are many people working incredibly hard across government and communities to shift systems and improve outcomes for whānau. This thought piece is not intended as a criticism of services and or of the many dedicated people and teams involved in developing and delivering them. Rather, it is a call to complement existing efforts and extend them through building our collective capacity to work in ways that recognise and enable the role of whānau and community in the regenerative journey we have to come.

Thanks to all our colleagues and partners for their input and critical feedback on this post.

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