Ryan does research on the formation, preferably over long periods of time, of public administrations. He is particularly interested in understanding the ways in which such institutions are embedded in, and entwined with, broader social contexts. His work presently extends to compliance regimes, civil service and public financial systems, and public procurement. He has been involved in various reform and support initiatives in these areas. His focus is on South Africa, but he understands the country in global and comparative terms.