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Improving how we report ethnicity

Capturing good data and reporting it accurately helps MSD make better decisions about the support we provide communities, whānau, and people in Aotearoa.


Ethnicity is about people’s identity and sense of belonging. Ethnicity measures cultural affiliation, rather than race, ancestry, nationality, or citizenship. Ethnicity is self-perceived; people can identify with more than one ethnic group and change their affiliations over time.

Since 2001, people have been able to tell us they identify with multiple ethnicities when accessing support from MSD. This recognises that people are diverse and often multi-cultural.

We ask for this so we can make sure people are able to express their full identity when engaging with us. This also makes sure we have the right information about communities, whānau, and people to base our decisions on. We use this information to show how different groups in Aotearoa are supported or impacted by the services we provide.

We currently report ethnicity using an approach called ‘prioritised ethnicity’. ‘Prioritised ethnicity’ means that we allocate people to a single ethnic group in an order of priority, even if they identify with more than one ethnicity. The priority used by MSD is Māori, Pacific Peoples, NZ European and Other. For example, if someone identifies as Māori and Tongan, they’re reported as Māori only.

What’s changing?

From 10 December 2021, we are introducing a new reporting approach called ‘total response’. Making this change will mean we recognise all aspects of someone’s ethnicity and allows us to represent the full diversity of communities, whānau, and people in Aotearoa. For example, if someone identifies as Māori and Tongan they’ll be reported as both Māori and Tongan.

This will reflect our clients more accurately, align our approach with Statistics NZ’s reporting and reflect best practice.

Moving to ‘total response’ ethnicity means people can appear more than once in our reporting, so ethnic group totals will add to more than 100 percent of clients. The number of clients hasn’t changed, but the way we represent them has. For example, as at 30 June 2021 around 12% of our main benefit clients identified with more than one ethnic group.

To understand the impact of these changes please see below:

Changes to the reporting ‘Hierarchy’

When we make this change, we’ll also start to use a 4-level hierarchy that aligns with Statistics NZ.

This hierarchy rolls the detailed information we collect (level 4) into 6 aggregate groups (level 1). We’ll start publishing reporting using level 1 so instead of publishing reporting for Māori, Pacific Peoples, Other, New Zealand European we’ll publish Māori, Pacific Peoples, European, Asian, MELAA (Middle Eastern, Latin American, and African), and Other. We’ll also be able to provide ethnicity reporting at level 2 which progressively have more detail.

This way of reporting will change the way our numbers look. For example, as at 30 June 2021 the percentage of main benefit clients who identify as ‘European’ will increase from 39 percent to 53 percent and ‘Pacific Peoples’ from 9 percent to 12 percent. The percentage of people identifying as Māori (38 percent) does not change, as this group was always reported as the ‘top’ priority.

To understand the different levels please see below:

When will this change happen?

We’ll change our public reporting first. We’ll use ‘total response’ in the Monthly Income Support Update from 10 December 2021, and we’ll update the Social Development Data app. From that date, ‘total response’ will become the normal way we report on ethnicity so where practical, we’ll start providing information using this approach. In January 2022, we’ll use total response in our Quarterly Benefit Fact Sheet and over time update all our other external reporting products.