Last September, Michael G. Massiah (Academy Fellow ’06) retired from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PANYNJ) after 40 years of distinguished service in a variety of senior leadership positions. From 2017 through his last day on the job, he was the Port Authority’s founding Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer, but his work on equity at PANYNJ began long before 2017. Over decades in leadership roles in Human Resources, the Office of Business and Job Opportunities, the Office of Organizational Effectiveness and Change Management, the Budget Department, and Capital Planning and Asset Management, he steadily built a diverse workforce and elevated the government’s ability to make a difference in the lives of underserved populations. This was ground-breaking work at the time and remains a model for inclusiveness and impact to this day. I (David Birdsell) had the chance to catch up with this extraordinary public servant earlier in the month to talk about his career, the importance of diversity in pubic organizations, and his advice for scholars and practitioners devoted to government service.
DB: How did you start your career at the Port Authority?
MM: As a graduate student, I had the opportunity to study Peter Goldmark’s leadership of the Port Authority, how he was using tools at the Authority’s disposal to thwart the out-migration of industry. That work, which included the creation of industrial parks, was a fantastic example of government trying to support urban environments.
I was already convinced of the importance of transportation to communities of color, something that I’d come to appreciate long before Gretchen Sorin’s Driving While Black, based on the experiences of my own family in North Carolina and in the West Indies. Mobility is a critical element of freedom. When I saw the kind of change that inspired leadership such as Goldmark’s could make, I jumped at the chance to join the PANYNJ in what was then called the Management Training Program (now the Leadership Fellows Program).
There I rotated through four departments in the first year. It was a blend of both line and staff assignments, giving me a birds-eye view of the Authority. My MPA training: Luther Gulick’s POSDCORB model, and more broadly, how the discipline of PA provided me with a range of competencies that allowed me to handle many different tasks. I found that I could do a lot, from facility operations to long-range strategic planning, to HR, to doing budgets in a line department.
DB: Talk a little about PANYNJ CEO Peter Goldmark’s impact on you as a brand new trainee.
MM: He was always thinking outside of the box. He recognized PA’s ability to do more, to start tinkering with economic development and improvement beyond the traditional line functions that the agency performed. As a young person coming in, I saw that he brought in a group of people from different backgrounds and abilities. He got new thoughts and thinkers together and elevated those who had an interest in using government to solve metropolitan problems. That was exciting! It liberated a person – at least me – to be creative.
My first permanent job was in HR, which I’d never studied. I said, wow, I’m the HR person. Let me think about developing staff and bring new people into the agency. How do you on-board people in a way to help them help us be less risk-averse, less traditional, etc.
DB: So you saw that HR could be the catalytic factor in changed thinking throughout the Authority much along the lines that the CEO was thinking about capital assets and systemic change?
MM: It was a big factor. I had two tours in HR. I was a division head until the early ‘90s and then came back as Director just after 9-11. In that second time around, I was also heading the Office of Organizational Effectiveness and Change Management, responsible for eliminating $150,000,000 in annual spending, a goal we met and then exceeded.
We did several things in HR. We focused on competencies and then set up HR programs in recognition of those competencies so that we’d know how to get people prepared with the training. We modernized a few other things, such as classification processes. We looked at all the functions of HR and upgraded them to new thinking: based on what our needs would be, always with a focus on diversity and inclusion as a guiding principle. We opened our doors to those who historically didn’t think about PANYNJ as an employer, Black and brown communities, and geographical areas we didn’t recruit in. It’s not just who you know, we’re open to everyone. The PA’s police force became more diverse.
We did a lot with I internal promotions too, recasting administrative jobs into more contract management, more sophisticated administrative approaches, self-service approaches, and made sure to have current staff move into the new roles. That was important because it preserved minority staff and women who had the more narrowly administrative jobs. We started to more nearly reflect the region we serve and have different thinking about how we serve customers.
DB: What has changed in the institutional management of DEI in your time?
MM: A lot! But I want to go back to Roosevelt Thomas’ work in the ‘90s where he showed for for-profit businesses that more diverse employees bring more diverse business. He argued the economics of it. He talked about the moral and legal issues, of course, but he stressed that you’re going to lose markets if you don’t pay attention because diversity supports innovation and profit.
So, between my two HR stints I headed up the Office of Business and Job Opportunities focused not on PANYNJ’s internal workforce but on contractors. Here we did some innovative things in building technical capacity among small businesses working with the Authority, many of them MWBEs. We were on Bloomberg News because we were one of the first agencies to do tech training for small businesses. This was where I realized we could use the Authority’s purchasing power to promote inclusion and drive financial benefits for under-served communities.
I was able to do that again on a larger scale later in my career as Chief of Capital Planning and Asset Management under ED Patrick Foye. This was right after Bridgegate and there were a number of reforms that I had to implement. Environmental matters and energy usage took center stage as well. How do we utilize property in and around operating facilities, to support intermodal transportation? Going back to my past, we ensured the Office of Business Opportunity was involved. They were charged to make sure Title VI was fully implemented, and that MWBEs participate.
DB: And then you were asked to become the Authority’s founding CDIO?
MM: Yes, I was ready to retire, but CEO Rick Cotton, to whom these issues are very important, asked me to establish the role. I said yes, if it came with real authority, and he assured me that it would. These positions can be consequential to access to opportunity and to wealth creation for communities. It comes out of a different side of government. Not the social service side, but it’s complementary. It comes out of the economic side, often in partnership with the private sector. If we get it right there, it supports the other side: social, health, etc. And it’s not necessarily a big budget costs. Government sets the goal and the private sector has to open itself up to inclusion. The government has leverage because of its contracting capabilities to support that.
If Diversity Officers recognize the potential of their impact in lean as well as good times, and communicate with each other, supported by academic studies that evaluate their impact, identify models, etc., that’s a good thing.
DB: What advice do you have for scholars and practitioners of public administration?
MM: First, do the kind of analysis in the public sector that McKinsey and others, building on Thomas’ work, have done to prove the economic value of diversity and inclusion. There’s some of that but not enough; we need more. [See a recent example from Hoang Trang, Jiwon Suh, and Meghna Sabharwal, “Beyond a Numbers Game? Impact of Diversity and Inclusion on the Perception of Organizational Justice,” PAR Early View, 06 Jan 2022 https://doi.org/10.1111/puar.13463.]
Second, we sometimes jump over management and go to leadership. Let’s not forget basic managerial skills going back to Gulick. That should be expanded now, but let’s not forget about teaching good management skills updated to include diversity in all aspects of every word represented in POSDCORB, which is what The Port Authority sets out to do as described in its report, Taking Action on Race Dynamics, issued in March of 2021. [https://www.paranynj.org/News/...]
Finally, let’s not stop talking about ethics in government. I don’t mean just obeying the law, but what does it mean to be a virtuous person in government? That’s one of the things that inclusion is about for me; it’s a question we all need to address and refresh every day.