A Māori data expert says new funding in the Budget isn’t enough to undo the damage caused by the last census

The Government has announced $14.1 million for Māori data collection as part of the 2021 Budget, in an effort to bolster response rates for the 2023 census.

The money will go towards two iwi-led projects that will collect Māori responses across two geographic areas.

The funding is the latest in an ongoing effort by the Government to address the major failures in Māori data collection during the previous census in 2018.

“It’s the right approach, in terms of being iwi-led,” says Māori data expert Andrew Sporle (Ngāti Apa, Rangitāne, Te Rarawa). “But it’s just too little too late.”

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Sporle is part of Te Mana Raraunga, the Māori data sovereignty network that warned the Government the last census would significantly undercount Māori and produce unreliable data.

This proved correct, with Statistics NZ only collecting individual census forms from 68.2 percent of Māori, down from 88.5 percent in 2013 and well below the general response rate of 83.3 percent.

“The engagement rate for Māori in rural areas was really poor to the extent that they couldn’t produce key household statistics like how many people were in each house,” says Sporle.

There was also a lack of data on overcrowding, home ownership, mobility, income, and Te Reo fluency in Māori households.

As a result, Statistics NZ was forced to flesh out the census data with information from other government departments like education and corrections. 

The undercount led to the appointment of an independent review panel, which found that census data on iwi affiliation was so bad that it could not be formally endorsed.

The review found the low engagement rate was due to the “digital-first” approach pioneered during the 2018 census, leading to a lack of staff and physical census forms in many Māori communities.

The debacle forced an apology to Māori from Statistics NZ and contributed to the resignation of its chief executive Liz MacPherson in 2019.

Liz McPherson resigned as chief executive of Statistics NZ after significant problems with the 2018 census were revealed. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

As 2023 approaches, the Government is promising to do better.

“A lesson we learnt from our experience with Covid-19 is the need for better data collection, and the necessity for us to partner with Māori to gather this information that will provide better guidance to iwi and to the Government when making policy decisions in areas that affect our people,” says Associate Minister of Statistics Meka Whaitiri.

Though details of the Budget-funded projects have yet to be announced, the Government says the two pilots will help increase Māori participation in areas that have previously been hard to reach.

They are also expected to permanently add to the data collection and analysis capacity of the as-yet-unnamed iwi involved.

While Sporle is pleased the funding will go to community-based projects, he says it’s still not enough to give him confidence in the 2023 census.

“Not at all,” says Sporle. “Yes it’s the kind of community engagement that we need to see, but ultimately they need to fund the census to an adequate level if we’re going to get good results.”

In 2020, Cabinet announced it was increasing funding for the census from $126 million to $210 million through the fourth of five Statistics NZ-ranked funding options.

While the money was a significant boost, Official Information Act documents revealed that Statistics NZ had advised the Government that $210 million would barely meet the minimum needed.

In particular, it advised that data on iwi affiliation was likely to be poor quality and not fit for release, much as it was in 2018.

That’s a major problem, since iwi affiliation data is used to direct government funding and Treaty settlements.

Sporle says not having adequate data on whānau Māori was also problematic for New Zealand’s Covid-19 response.

“One of the key things about a pandemic, for instance, is how many people are in a household?” he says. “So, if you are going to be controlling and planning for a pandemic it’s really important to know how many close contacts people have.”

The Budget announcement follows recent Statistics NZ initiatives such as the development of iwi data platform Te Whata, and a recent census trial at the Waikato/Tainui hub, Waahi Pā in Huntly.

Statistics New Zealand has also signed a mana ōrite relationship agreement with the Data Iwi Leaders Group to involve iwi in the design and implementation of the next census.

Both the Waahi Pā trial and the new iwi-led projects are exactly the kinds of flax-roots community projects Sporle wants to see rolled out on a wider scale.

He says it’s crucial to have community leaders involved in projects, especially in rural Māori communities.

“There’s nothing like having a couple of aunties who know everyone collecting the forms,” he says. “That really builds community trust in the process”.

Ben Leonard writes on Treaty issues and the environment.

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