Peter Tsokas - CEO of the City of Unley Council
Local Government

“Understand your residents and how they want to be engaged - then involve them in the process”  Peter Tsokas - CEO of the City of Unley Council

March 24, 2023

“Understand your residents and how they want to be engaged - then involve them in the process” 

The City of Unley is a local government area located directly south of the Adelaide central business district. Known for having some of the most lush suburbs in all of Australia, this was further evidenced when the region became one of only three Australian towns designated as a  “Tree City of the World” by the United Nations Food & Agriculture Organization.

As part of Payble’s Faces of Local Government Leadership series, we had the pleasure of speaking with Peter Tsokas - CEO of the City of Unley. 

Peter has had an extensive career in local government - as well as serving on several boards for various charitable organisations including, the Australia Day Council of South Australia & the Australian China Business Council. 

Peter has served as CEO for over 10 years & brings many unique insights which deserve an audience amongst council leaders across the nation. 

What are the largest changes in the local government sector over the last 10 years?

According to Peter, the average ratepayer wants to “be more involved in decision making than ever before.”

"Consumer behaviour has changed - people want information quickly, they want it in language that's easy to understand and they want a say in what council does."

To make decision making as representative as possible at the City of Unley, council leadership is putting together an Engagement Framework, ‘Shaping Unley’ - through which 10,000 residents will be engaged via email marketing, formal panels & workshops to gather their input on strategic issues. For residents, this varied from topics new council works projects to climate change - with particular emphasis on the potential loss of protective tree coverage.

In addition, "compared with the early 2000s - ratepayers now demand access to information faster than ever and easy self-help options too" - yearning for the ability to find & filter data about their community in a way that is easy to understand and get faster responses from the council too. 

The City of Unley is continuing to develop several technological systems to support this including: 

  • a self-directed parking system, which has resulted in a significant reduction in infringement appeals, 
  • pothole register, showing a map reported issues  & 
  • information about street sweeping is delivered via SMS.

What is your advice for other C-level & director level operators within Local Government?

Peter emphasizes the importance of three elements; "organisational culture & leadership, delegation & empowerment."

Establishing the right organisational culture - is fundamental to success

Councils should not “settle for second best” & make a continuous effort to recruit the best people in alignment with wider team values. 

Provide clarity around the skillsets of each council employee to enable delegation

The City of Unley has employed psychometric testing as one way to understand & leverage the ‘hidden’ skills of everyone in the organisation. 

Empower the team around you 

Peter cites the importance of ‘shared decision making’ - where he lets “individual experts take the lead.” He notes that the role of the CEO can then be to provide assistance when there isn’t a general consensus. 

What other initiatives are you most proud of in your local government area under your tenure?

The City of Unley implemented a Customer Complaints Framework through which the council was able to survey between 400-500 residents per month, seeing complaints fall by 50% in 12 months. 

Secondly, innovations in the customer call centre allowed management to measure the ratio of answered calls to those that went abandoned - seeking to decrease the time it took for residents to find their first point of resolution. Ultimately through this process, more residents were able to be helped on the phone without needing to be internally transferred. 

Finally, the council has made an effort to refurbish buildings to foster co-working spaces & local innovation - with the aim of improving economic growth in the community. 

Is there anything you have done that other councils may not have considered as part of their strategic plan?

Peter spoke of an alliance with Trikala Council in Greece - which was recently named one of Europe’s Top 5 Smart Cities. His intention is to collaborate on a range of areas including the environment, active ageing and digital transformation. 

From this partnership, the City of Unley was inspired to commission the aforementioned refurbishments to foster local innovation hubs for start-up businesses. 

In addition, Trikala’s forward-thinking and data-driven approach to Telehealth also served as a point of inspiration and as a reference during the pandemic. 

Also, the council has forged a close relationship with 5 other suburban councils to benefit from a combined strategy on decision making. 

What is in the future for the City of Unley from a technology perspective? 

The City of Unley is working towards an integration of the customer requests, service operations & asset management systems to empower an end-to-end fulfilment process for maintenance requests in the community. 

For example under the status quo, a customer may request a repair to a local sidewalk but only once that job has been approved will council personnel be assigned to prioritise & complete the project - resulting in costly delays & inefficiencies. With a more complex system, requests could be ranked based on urgency & timing - then dynamically assigned to council staff based on location & available resources. 

Learnings from leaders - Peter's top 5 

  1. Engage with your community - Invite diverse groups to participate and feed into the council's strategic thinking. There are great ideas in the community and you will really understand what matters to them.
  2. Provide various ways to communicate with the council - Enable easy digital options so residents can engage with you how they want to.  
  3. There’s always something that can be learnt from others - Partner with other councils that have different challenges to encourage different thinking e.g. Trikala (Top 5 smart cities)  
  4. Look to partnerships to solve existing challenges that can be with other councils, universities and/or the private sector. 
  5. Employ the right people and empower them to do their best work.

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