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A policy practitioner with a passion for higher ed

MPP-Digital Society Executive Director Vass Bednar sits down for a candid conversation about her long-standing connection to McMaster, her journey into public policy and her curious choice of avatar.

Dec 18, 2020

Vasiliki (Vass) Bednar joined the Faculty of Social Sciences in mid-November 2020 as the executive director of the Faculty’s new Master of Public Policy (MPP) in Digital Society program.

Since (and even before) her arrival, Vass has been busy behind the scenes pulling together the myriad of pieces that go into a new graduate program. She is working closely with internal and external stakeholders to build an innovative curriculum that trains prospective policy leaders to navigate the rapidly changing dynamics of the digital landscape so as to more effectively address its associated social, political, and economic challenges. Most recently, Vass has begun efforts to recruit of the inaugural class of graduate students.

We recently caught up with Vass in the midst of her preparations to learn more about her experience in public policy and her interest in being part of a new MPP program at McMaster—her alma mater.  

Welcome back to McMaster, Vass! As an alumna, what are you most looking forward to now that you’re back on campus (virtually, at least)?

Everything (!).

McMaster taught me how to think. My time as a student here meant so much to me from a discovery perspective. The Arts & Science Program built my numeracy skills, passion for research and argumentation, collaboration skills, and helped me view public speaking as a productive pleasure. It set the foundation for the career that I’ve cobbled together.

If I had to pick *one* thing, it would be buying a massive drip coffee at the MSU café—where I used to work! Best drip coffee ever.

As your CV shows, you have extensive experience in influencing public policy. What drew you to pursue a Master of Public Policy after an Arts and Science degree from McMaster?

Studying public policy was a natural extension of McMaster’s problem-based learning approach.

When I graduated from McMaster, I was running the campus food bank (then called "The Breadbin"), the campus Meal Exchange chapter, TA-ing a literature course, writing opinion pieces for the Sil, and working as a Research Associate in addition to my core course load. In hindsight those were all good clues that I might find satisfaction as a policy person that is active in her community.

It was also the 2008 recession, so it was a good time to be in school and it seemed to me that there was no shortage of policy problems to work on. Little did I realize that 2008 was a crucial year for startups that revolutionize cross-ministerial decision-making – both Uber and Airbnb (where I later worked) were founded that year.

I came of age as a policymaker while these companies were growing in regulatory gray zones. I watched them grow exponentially while governments scrambled to define and contain them. That has informed my own theory of change and motivates my thinking about how we can work together to reduce, and even eliminate, regulatory lag.

What led you to be a part of this new MPP program at McMaster?

I have spent the past decade (+) considering different facets and machinations of the innovation economy, and I care a lot about how novel tech companies can contribute to economic growth. I’m also fascinated by how good decisions get made, where the best ideas come from, and where they go. 

I had an early “win” in the policy space that was intoxicating – it spoiled me. After contributing to research on the Cost of Poverty for the Ontario Association of Food Banks (OAFB) in the summer of 2008, the research paper was cited in the province of Ontario’s first Poverty Reduction Strategy. I saw how external research could inform policy decisions and wanted to be a productive part of that space. 

After graduating (in a recession! Relatable) I worked at the Rotman School of Management think tank, the Martin Prosperity Institute, as a research associate. My work explored the dynamics and mobility of service workers in Canada, and investigated the effects of job training on wages and job satisfaction among new immigrants to Canada. This let me use the skills as I built as a student in the labour market. I was then back at the School of Public Policy and Governance (now “Munk”) when it was in a start-up phase, working in the Director’s Office. What I loved about that role was working with the nascent community to build out thoughtful public engagement opportunities. During that time, I also pitched my TEDxToronto talk on Making Public Policy More Fun, and had the opportunity to participate in the Action Canada fellowship.

At that point in time, I felt that a political lens was missing from my toolkit, so I went to work at Queen’s Park as a political staffer under the Wynne administration and worked in the War Room that got her elected. This let me sit in Cabinet sometimes and listen to discussions on important policy issues. I always felt the most curious about what research was cited in the briefing binders. I was also building some online game prototypes at the time and delivered the 2014 Hancock lecture on Being a Policy Player

After the majority, I left the pink palace to go back to the Martin Prosperity Institute in a leadership role as the associate director of the Cities research program, working with and for Richard Florida. This was a hybrid approach to scholarship – engaging a broad public audience through outlets like the CityLab blog while also working on longer-form work. After writing about millennials a little bit, I was appointed by the Prime Minister to be the Chair of the Expert Panel on Youth Employment. The exercise let me think about the future of work with a focus on young people, and our recommendations to modernize the youth employment system continue to be referenced. At this point in my career, all of my employment arrangements were one-year contracts; so I was experiencing the increasing precarity of work in a particular way.

The Martin Prosperity Institute previously had a mission to “take a business approach to public policy,” but I didn’t really understand what that meant and wanted to better appreciate what that could mean. So, I left the think tank and joined Airbnb’s public policy team in Canada, where I spent two years engaged in regulatory conversations across orders of government and entered into historic tax deals.  That role gave me the political pace that I missed from Queen’s Park, the research work that I liked from the think tank, and the engagement with public officials that I enjoyed. It was interesting to work for a large technology company and navigate the issues with stakeholders. 

During that period, I was a finalist for the Lieutenant Governor’s Visionaries Prize for Inclusive Prosperity, where I pitched the concept of child care loans. After two years, I left Airbnb to help build Delphia, the world’s first investment adviser to allow people to advice their data alongside their money to improve their investment returns. We piloted a new model there, where we embedded a policy lens to the product development, security, and marketing. At this time, I also delivered a Walrus Talk on the Dark Side of Rewards Programs

After leaving Delphia, I worked independently as a “solopreneur” which is just how I made “independent contractor” sound fancier. I engaged in a mix of research work and strategic advice to early-stage companies. I also started the newsletter “regs to riches,” which is about startups and public policy in Canada, and spent more time thinking about the evolving relationship between technologists and regulators.

So why am I here at McMaster? I wanted to help build and inform something that could solve for a gap in the space. I was attracted to the idea of collaboratively building a new program that is scrappy and small and super thoughtful. I’ve seen where and how we need to seriously improve our speed and capacity when it comes to regulating technology both big and small.  I’m learning so much and being challenged in new ways. It’s very exciting.

This new Master of Public Policy allows students to specialize in policies affecting digital Society. How would you describe “digital society?” 

A “Digital Society” is an interdisciplinary research area and a kind of progressive society that has been formed as a result of adaptation as well as integration of advanced technologies into the society and culture.

There is a “digital society” that exists within cyberspaces, and some consider that this society is becoming indistinguishable from analogue "in real life" society. Our digital society is more and more “of” society – so in order to understand the social, political and economic dynamics so as to create policies that service the needs of that society, we need to understand how these changes are unfolding. 

That duality of our lives has never felt as-pronounced as it does right now, during the COVID-19 pandemic.

(So, you could consider “digital society” being a synonym with “online.”)

In your opinion, what are the most pressing public policy challenges facing our digital society?

  • Balancing the right to privacy with “legitimate” commercial interests;
  • Battling the perception that any sort of regulation will come at the expense of innovation;
  • Resisting the temptation to use/procure technology as a mechanism to save public dollars during a recession/period of scarce resources;
  • We could also do a better job of being anticipatory and looking ahead to harms on the horizon with emerging tech.

What gaps are you hoping the Master of Public Policy in Digital Society can fill?

I’m hoping the MPP in Digital Society can empower policy practitioners to work across public, private, and non-profit sectors to recognize harms on the horizon as entrepreneurial regulators. The challenges that decision-makers face as they seek to strike a balance between facilitating innovation and protecting consumers from harm is thorny. Increasingly, issues in our digital society cut across jurisdictions, Ministries, departments – forcing a sort of policy entrepreneurialism in order to co-ordinate across relevant actors to design a credible and comprehensive policy response. However, this behind-the-scenes work can add to the regulatory lag that is so frustrating for citizens. Moving forward, we can’t risk a paralysis from co-ordination that facilitates regulatory entrepreneurship.

There are many public policy degrees from which to choose, why might a student choose to complete their MPP at McMaster?

The MPP prepares students for employment in a government capacity, but also in the non-profit and private sectors. 

  • The program is employing a co-teaching model. For many courses, the anchor/lead academic is co-teaching with a Professor of Practice, a practitioner from the field to enrich perspectives and bring readings to life.
  • Students engage in 9 skills labs, 1.5 credit micro-credentials that complement the core curriculum, such as working with data and learning to code, project management and product management.
  • The program provides 12 months of full-time, continuous courses, ending in May to align with key hiring windows.
  • A mandatory case study course will see students engaging with Canadian and international policymaking examples ripped from the headlines.
  • Students will benefit from partnerships that bridge the classroom to the community (e.g. the Forge and CityLab Hamilton).

By graduation, we hope students will be equipped with the 8 digital era competencies for a digital era public service leader, among other skills.

When you’re not busy getting a new graduate program up and running, how do you like to spend your time?

I love to read books and expose myself to new ideas, but I’ve been finding it harder to focus on reading in the pandemic. Perhaps it feels less like an ‘escape’ of sorts as we have been so homebound. I suppose my spare-time activities are cooking, cleaning, and scrolling through Twitter – if I had to be honest. If I had to write something interesting for this interview, I think it would be about spending time learning and sense-making around technology issues and possible responses.

Is there anything you would like the Faculty of Social Sciences community to know about you as you get started in your role?

  1. My avatar is a male comedian that dresses up as at his twin sister (because/and) I have a twin brother. I thought it would be a conversation starter, but maybe people think it’s an actual photo of me. I hope they aren’t disappointed when I turn up on screen. 
  2. My boyfriend in undergrad once scoffed that “no one likes public policy as much as you.” We broke up, but I think he was totally right.