Q&A with Administration Commissioner Spencer Cronk

| May 12, 2014

Since Spencer Cronk was appointed Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Administration in 2011, he has led efforts to streamline and reorganize state services. Currently, he is in charge of the $272 million state Capitol renovation project, which is expected to be completed in January 2017. Prior to joining the Minnesota government, Cronk served in then-Mayor Bloomberg’s administration in New York City.

The GP Spin recently sat down with Commissioner Cronk to discuss his career and the state Capitol renovation project.


1. How did you develop an interest in government administration and redesign? What has been your career path?

A recent New York Times editorial said that one of [Mayor Bloomberg’s] underappreciated accomplishments was to make public service a valued vocation for a new group of urban experts. That was certainly true in my situation. I never considered working in the public sector until I moved to New York City. I was very impressed with how the Bloomberg administration was tackling some of the big management challenges in running a city of that size and scope. After meeting with several mayoral appointees, I was inspired to join their team and subsequently served as the executive director and senior advisor for the Department of Small Business Services. I always knew that I would move back to my home state of Minnesota and was honored to be appointed by Governor Dayton to this position.

2. You are younger than the average commissioner. How does your age affect how you approach government administration?

Overall, I would argue that good management principles are good management principles regardless of age. That said, I do think that being a part of a younger generation provides me with a unique lens to look at our operations. This includes an examination of what services we provide our customers and how we provide those services Рhow might we redesign what we do in order to have a more engaging interaction with our customers. I also have been paying particular attention to how the state can develop the next generation of leaders. Almost half of the state government workforce is over the age of 50, and 13% are at or past the average retirement age. I see this as an incredible opportunity to rethink how we develop job descriptions and employment incentives to attract new talent.

3. Can you give us a brief overview of the Capitol renovations project so readers understand the scope and timeline?

The $272 million project will be the first comprehensive preservation effort since the Capitol’s construction in 1905. The project will be completed in four phases and includes repairs to the deteriorating facade and modernization of the mechanical, electrical, plumbing, life-safety, security and telecommunication systems. The restoration will also preserve the architectural integrity of the historic landmark in keeping with architect Cass Gilbert’s original design. Throughout the course of the project, the complex will be an active construction site accompanied by the noise, dust and traffic interruptions. We will be relocating tenants including the Governor, legislators, and the media.

4. How have you approached the Capitol renovations from an organizational perspective (e.g., stakeholder engagement and communication)?

Stakeholder participation and communication is essential to the success of the Capitol restoration project. In my office, I have more than 30 years of predesigns and studies on restoring the Capitol that went nowhere. We looked to other states that had been successful in restoring their capitols and learned from them. From that exercise emerged the Minnesota State Capitol Preservation Commission. By bringing together key leaders in a public series of hearings, a bipartisan and bicameral approach to restoring the Capitol was developed. That support has been critical in advancing this project.
The restoration process is to ensure that the Capitol building meets functional needs for the next century. That cannot be successful without understanding the needs of those who use the building regularly. After initial funding was appropriated, a series of public meetings were held at the Capitol by the design team to get input from the tenants, user groups, disability advocates, and the media. The needs addressed in those meetings have really influenced the restoration plans. Additionally, we communicate regularly with those who work in the building on what is occurring and how that will impact them.

5. Renovating the Capitol is no small task. Unlike some other large construction projects, this project is dependent on state appropriations and not necessarily immune from politics. In light of that, what are some unique considerations and challenges to the Capitol project that other construction projects may not face?

The Capitol is our seat of government and where the issues of today and tomorrow are debated. We cannot only consider the needs of those who have offices in the building but those who participate in the governing process, from the students who visit the Capitol for the first time to people attending a rally to support or oppose a particular issue. We have a duty to ensure that the construction does not infringe on their right to participate.

6. Are there challenges to planning a long-term project that could potentially be dramatically changed by future legislatures, new governor, and possibly a new commissioner?

There are definitely challenges to predicting the functionality needs of the Capitol in 75 years. However, the Capitol is a living building that will be adapted to the times in which it is exists. That has always been and will always be the case. Our work will facilitate future needs. This project is about restoring the health of the building by repairing the exterior stone and modernizing the mechanical and technology systems. Systems will be designed for easier modifications, repairs and replacements in the future.

7. What is the most interesting or unusual thing you’ve discovered about the Capitol complex as construction crews have started work?

The entire process is fascinating. (Although we have yet to find a cache of hidden treasures!) Highlights of the project so far include discovering the methods the original stone carvers used to distinguish their work on the marble scrolls on the building?s exterior. We have found some graffiti from the first work crews. The most interesting development is the work being done in the basement. As the old paint is removed from the stone and cinder block walls, the look and feel of the space is amazing. What was once a dark tunnel will eventually become a great public space for displays and events.

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