Portions of this article are adapted from a piece by Laura Barten published in Forward Janesville Report
When La Follette School alum Craig Knutson took a position as Assistant to the County Administrator in 1979, he had no idea that 35 years later he'd be looking back on a lifelong career serving residents of Rock County in southern Wisconsin.
County governments are agencies of the state, carrying out state and federal mandates, yet few people truly understand the myriad tasks a county office oversees. When Knutson began his career, he was surprised at the scope of Rock County services, as Wisconsin is one of a dozen or so states that administer state Health and Human Services as part of the county's services and budget.
"Quite often people have a vision of the county courthouse, fairgrounds, squad cars and dump trucks," says Knutson, who retired in August 2014 after 30 years as County Administrator. "Those are all part of the picture, but fully 60 percent of our budget is health and human services—child protective services, support for those with a disability, mental health and/or substance abuse challenges."
"In so many ways, the county is the invisible level of government," he adds. "We manage the services that society depends upon yet are easy to overlook unless you have a family member or friend in need. The state and federal governments mandate what should be provided, then it's up to us to make that happen. This is part of what makes it so fascinating. People who are elected to the county board are almost always surprised by the size, complexity and scope of services."
Knutson earned a bachelor's degree from Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. "I studied history and social science," he says. "I was prepared to teach secondary school, but I had a strong interest in public administration. After working for a few years, I knew I wanted to go back to school to get my master's degree and change course."
A native of Clinton in Rock County, Knutson headed to the University of Wisconsin–Madison's Center for the Study of Public Policy and Administration, a precursor of the La Follette School, and completed his master's degree in 1978. "The center's placement office suggested I apply to be the assistant to the county administrator in Rock County," he says. "Like most new grads, I thought I'd spend a few years in Rock County and gain some experience—35 years later, here I am. I've never been bored for even one day. It was the best kind of challenge to have the opportunity to have an effect on county operations and the services Rock County offers residents."
Knutson's graduate studies prepared him well, Knutson says. "First, I acquired the basic skill set and knowledge base one needs to lead an organization. Knowledge of budgeting, human resource administration, policy and fiscal analysis, operational analysis, etc. are the foundation a person needs to do the job."
Good written and oral communication skills are essential, he says. "The ability to gather a large amount of information about a problem, analyze that information and then explain the issue in a way the stakeholders can relate to and understand is essential to being successful. The rigorous academic environment with writing and presentation requirements at the La Follette School helped me develop my communication skills."
"My academic work also helped me develop critical thinking skills," he adds. "Studying a problem, identifying the forces affecting the issue, devising courses of action and anticipating the possible outcomes of each course of action was something my staff and I did continually. Most of the time we were dealing with multiple issues concurrently."
Knutson's graduate school coursework and internships helped him develop the ability to relate to and work with multiple stakeholders. "The interaction with other students, professors and state officials during two internships and contact with multiple sources during research projects helped prepare me for work at the county," he says. "In Rock County, this included citizens, 29 county board members, 1200+ employees, state legislators and other elected officials, officials from 29 towns cities and villages and others."
Throughout his years as administrator, Knutson built relationships with peers and stakeholders by serving on the Board of the Wisconsin City/County Management Association and the local United Way Board of Directors. "I also am a member of the International City County Management Association, the National Association of County Administrators and was a member of the Wisconsin County Executives and Administrators Association," he says. "I also served on the Joint Legislative Council Special Committee on District Attorney Funding and Administration in 2007 and served for a number of years on the Legislative Audit Bureau's Best Practices Advisory Committee."
Quietly commanding, capable and well liked, Knutson is consistently praised in Rock County for his ability to bring stakeholders together and navigate competing interests while managing budgets that oftentimes appeared almost impossible to maintain. He managed Rock County through a recession and the 2008-09 job losses without overspending or slashing services. Today, Rock County is stable and strong, with an AA1 Moody's bond rating.
"Without resources, you can't provide services," says Knutson, who notes that his wife, Julie, was an essential support during his service as County Administrator. "One of the primary goals of my job was to keep the county in good financial shape."
Perhaps one of the keys to Knutson's success is his commitment to continuous improvement. "The process of looking hard at operations, investigating best practices across the country and bringing those practices to our work is something we've been doing and will never cease to be needed," he says.
"In Rock County, continuous improvement is more than just words. Procedures, practices and needs change," he says. "Projects like consolidating countywide emergency dispatch into the centralized Rock County Communications Center and streamlining public health service delivery can be enormously complex and have many stakeholders. Our excellent cooperation among county municipalities sets us apart in many ways."
In recent years, Rock County has implemented innovative programming to streamline services in some challenging arenas. For example, in 2006, the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council was formed to help improve communication, cooperation and interconnection among criminal justice agencies, the courts and support services for offenders, Knutson says. The council helped create specialty courts (drug, operating while intoxicated and veterans) and new jail diversion programs, including enhanced electronic monitoring, that are paying dividends in reduced recidivism rates and better allocation of resources.
Knutson says that being successful with so many competing challenges and interests all comes down to cooperation. "I've enjoyed this job in part because of the great county boards I've worked with over the years," he says. "You develop a sense of trust, and I so appreciated the latitude the county board gave me to do what I needed to do. My job was to point out the pros and cons, make recommendations and then implement the will of the board. Not everything always goes right, and there will be problems to deal with on a daily basis, but for me, the best part of the job was watching the improvements that have occurred and how we are able to better serve the people of this county. You always wish you could do more. You have to enjoy the victories, then move forward and continue to work on improving things even more."