Kirkpatrick Mariner’s moko: Manaakiao (10), Te Tai Marino (2), and Kaea (6 months).

I’m not Māori, but I’m married to a wāhine toa of Ngāi Tai and Ngāti Koata iwi. We have two girls and I’m the proud pāpā of three mokopuna. My eldest girl is fluent in te reo and our moko will all go through a kura kaupapa, so they’ll have a grounding in the language that’s their indigenous birthright.

That said, I worry for my moko. As Covid-19 hit the world, I asked myself: If they needed access to essential services online, would they get it? And, during a crisis, would those services be delivered in a way that’s timely and suits them? 

As we move towards a digital future, I’m acutely aware that we need to get it right not just for my moko, but for all Māori. 

Covid-19 has exposed digital, social and economic inequalities in a way that’s unprecedented. 

And, as some commentators have argued, the ongoing negative impact for Māori is likely to be huge.

When it comes to digital exclusion, the current statistics for Māori don’t make for great reading. 

What the data tells us

A 2019 report by Motu Research for the Department of Internal Affairs clearly shows that Māori are one of the most digitally disadvantaged groups in New Zealand. 

A preliminary analysis of the Household Economic Survey confirms that Māori are among the groups — along with Pacific and unemployed people — who have less connectivity and fewer devices needed to get online. 

As you’d expect, one of the key barriers to internet access is low household income — that’s a contributing factor for a significant number of families. 

This aligns with the latest Statistics New Zealand child poverty figures, showing that a quarter of Māori children suffer from material poverty. This means 25 percent of Māori students will experience digital poverty, which is likely to lead to a poorer education.

Getting it right for Māori

My worry is this reality will continue to go ignored in the months (and maybe years) after lockdown — and that New Zealand’s digital inclusion interventions won’t make any significant, long-term difference for Māori.

Why, exactly? I think it’s because government agencies use a tired model for engaging with Māori — and they don’t have the courage to change the way we do things to get it right for Māori.

I’ve worked in government long enough to know that we tend to respond much too superficially. We like to “kia-ora-fy” services because that’s quick and easy. And we over emphasise the deficits of Māori. 

Instead of supporting Māori communities to use their strengths to develop their own solutions, we’re quick to write Māori solutions off because we assume there’s no capability. 

Or we’re too lazy to engage because it’s too hard. Or we’re scared that they might get it right. 

So we opt for top-down, monocultural approaches. We’ll design information to look Māori, and we’ll get information translated into te reo Māori. At events, we’ll roll out the piupiu and the guitar to show how “mean Māori mean” we are, and we’ll use the word “partnership” — although we’ll mostly define the terms of the partnership. And we’ll call the shots.

Yes, cultural niceties are good. But we need to go further, just as Dr Elana Curtis suggests in her E-Tangata article

We need to change the way we work with Māori and we need to be authentic.

But how do we do that in practice? I’m not sure, but I believe it has to start with us giving up the notion that western ways work best for Māori. We need to let Māori determine what works best for them. And we need to pay close attention to how Māori and other indigenous communities go about their work.

Answers to digital inclusion

When it comes to tackling the issues of digital inclusion, Robyn Kamira, a tech consultant, provides some insights into how government agencies might get started. She recently wrote a thoughtful opinion piece on how Māori can bridge the digital divide in the post-Covid world. 

There’s also excellent reading in her white papers about remote marae and how a community was transformed from a telecommunications blackspot into becoming the first fibre-connected marae in the country using the RBI network (Rural Broadband Initiative). 

Marae Digital Connectivity is an multi-agency initiative helping Māori to connect to the internet. But not all connectivity projects are run from out of a marae. We can also learn a lot from digital hub examples like NGEN Room in Whangārei and the Ruapehu community tech hub. These show how collaborations between Māori and the local community are making medium to long-term gains for Māori youth.

Iwi leaders are keen to use these approaches, too. Some of them have been in touch with me to share their vision of the future. They see the need to change direction, to pivot in response to Covid-19, and to explore how digital solutions may help.

One iwi told me that their data shows that about 20 percent of their people are highly engaged and connected to the digital world, and 30 percent are sometime users. But there are 50 percent who have little to do with the internet or the digital world. 

Their plan is to set up a digital hub for running digital skills programmes, and for upskilling their elders — and it will also double as the local kōhanga reo to keep the generations connected physically as well as digitally.

The goal is to help the iwi tell their stories online, improve digital connectivity among iwi members, support community engagement, and increase digital skills for a sustainable economic development. 

It’ll also give them a range of digital platforms to distribute iwi information and resources. Covid-19 showed them, like many of us, how vital the online world is in maintaining contact during times of social isolation.

Another iwi is looking to create a “new normal” informed by the lessons of Covid-19. 

Their digital ambitions relate to broadening the skills of their people, while building a new local economy that’s based on horticulture, technology and new enterprise. Right now, they’re collating data from their people as they develop a plan.

These are just two examples of iwi who’re looking to the digital world to help them improve the wellbeing of their whānau and communities.

We’re seeing a range of Māori tech companies emerging and we need them to lead innovation and create environments to develop an indigenous digital workforce. As it is, Māori make up only 2.5 percent of the tech workforce in New Zealand, so we have some work to do.

Where to from here?

As we move out of lockdown, I’d like the digital inclusion community — including government agencies, NGOs, and telcos — to see the post Covid-19 era as our opportunity to step up and really make the change for, and with, Māori. 

Yes, for my moko, but also for all Māori and the future of Aotearoa-New Zealand.

I’ve been a public servant for more than 25 years, and while that doesn’t make me an expert, it does mean that I’ve had a lot of experience representing the team that’s been on the losing side when it’s come to pushing for more Māori say. So these reflections are based on I’ve learned:

    • We need to back Māori innovation and Māori research.
    • We need to meet Māori where they are. Solutions should be led by Māori and sustained by Māori, recognising that they’re anchored in their whenua and that they know more than we do.
    • We need to abandon short-term, easy solutions and support Māori so they can design strategies and interventions from their place of strength.
    • We need to understand that iwi play the long game and they have long-term strategic planning cycles.
    • We must collaborate in ways that serve the social and economic interests of iwi.
    • We must recognise that trust is an issue because the relationship with the government has been built on 180 years of feeling dispossesed. So don’t take it personally if Māori have a crack at you as government representatives.
    • We must recognise that partnership is very different to participation — and we should be clear about the rules of engagement.
    • We need to reset how we work with Māori — and find a meaningful way for government officials to get behind Māori, rather than blindside them.

The challenge ahead

Don’t get me wrong. I’m proud to be a public servant. But I constantly have to challenge myself and my colleagues to find a better way to work with Māori — one that actually works for Māori.


Kirk is Sāmoan, Chinese and Niuean (Poly-Asian) and married into a Ngāi Tai–Ngāti Koata whānau. He was born in Masterton and raised in Taranaki before the ‘āiga moved to South Auckland for more opportunities when he was 15. He has worked in the public sector for over 25 years and is now the strategic lead for the Digital Inclusion Work Programme at the Department of Internal Affairs. He has a master’s in health management and has an avid interest is designing services and strategies that champion equity and diversity.

© E-Tangata, 2020

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