Washington — President Reagan's domestic policy operation - like his just-revamped national security setup - is under review.
Often the only way to get the White House to act on key domestic issues, some administration insiders say, is to subvert the orderly Cabinet process and orchestrate ''spontaneous'' response to an issue in front of the President, or make an end run through Congress to grab his attention.
All of which underlines the difficulty of Martin Anderson's job as domestic affairs adviser to the President - especially in a town that admires assertiveness more than modesty, hunger for power more than loyalty to the chief.
Complaints about his shop - he oversees the vast domestic policy development activities at the White House - reach him in the impersonal, secondhand fashion of bureaucratic corridor warfare.
Mr. Anderson has just seen his foreign policy counterpart, national security adviser Richard Allen, resign under fire. His immediate boss, presidential counselor Edwin Meese III, is taking heat for having moved too slowly in the Allen affair, and is criticized for general laxity at the policy development helm.
At stake with Anderson is not just the survival of another White House insider, however, but the future of Reagan's concept of Cabinet government.
Reagan's team set up a half-dozen policy councils to deal with topics such as economic affairs and human resources. These councils are manned by different clusters of Cabinet officers and chaired by a secretariat. Beneath the councils, some 50 ''working groups'' have been formed to explore topics such as the thrift industry's plight or enterprise zones in cities. Anderson oversees the work-flow of all this.
''Relative to what was thought possible, it's working extraordinarily well,'' Anderson says. ''It was Meese's idea to set up the policy councils, because the President wanted Cabinet government.''
But to outsiders and to some of Anderson's own people, Reagan's Cabinet system, with its complex subworkings, is a disappointment.
''In reputation, this White House appears to be running smoothly,'' says presidential scholar Stephen J. Wayne of George Washington University. ''But internally there is little coordination on anything but the senior level. And there are few organized policy processes - except for major presidential priorities, and the budget process.''
''There's certainly dissatisfaction with Anderson, with the whole operation, '' says one administration official close to the Cabinet process. ''But Anderson's likely to stick around.
''People inside are saying it's not turned out to be a great shop. It doesn't do much. It's not expected to turn out any new theme for 1982 in the President's message to Congress this month.
''In 1982, the administration will focus again on the budget, the economy, and to a greater extent, foreign policy.
''Domestically, the administration deals largely with crises, with issues brought into (chief of staff) Jim Baker's shop, or of sufficient stature that Congress or the Cabinet raises them. So you don't have Anderson running policy development in a substantive sense.''
Anderson's strength is his knowledge of Reagan's statements and positions extending back in time. He also organized the study groups, the teams of experts that evolved from the campaign through the transition to the present. He is the keeper of Reagan's continuity in policy, rather than a forceful administrator.
Anderson's low visibility, partly because of his low-key style, frustrates his staff. They complain they are not acquiring the status or clout that previous domestic policy staffs have exercised. Stuart Eizenstat, President Carter's chief domestic affairs adviser, for instance, wielded enormous influence and was highly visible in Washington.
But the Reagan team deliberately played down the public role of his chief national security and domestic advisers.
''Eizenstat put himself between the Cabinet and the President,'' says Ronald B. Frankum, Reagan's deputy director of policy development. ''President Reagan wanted to keep a lot of authority where it belonged, at the Cabinet development level. The Cabinet councils are intended to utilize the entire capacity of the Cabinet. That is very difficult to do. You have to be patient, to bring up to speed people not familiar with the President's past comments and positions.''
The term ''Cabinet government'' cannot actually apply to an American president's operation, Mr. Frankum and others observe.
''Cabinet government is best known in terms of the parliamentary system, where executive responsibility is shared in the Cabinet and where they vote on issues on which a government might fall,'' says Stephen Hess, Brookings Institution scholar.
''The president alone, in the American system, has executive responsibility for decisions. There is nothing about the Cabinet in the US Constitution.''
Neither is Reagan's Cabinet council system a ''board of directors,'' Frankum asserts. ''It's a system where a group of people, in front of the President, are forced to lay out the issues after it's decided they are worth his attention.''
Reagan's decisionmaking system ''worked very well in Sacramento,'' says Frankum, a veteran of Reagan's California governor years. ''It's not a question of whether we can make it work here. Reagan himself will be the enforcer. He will make it work. He will make the decisions.''
''One of the sources of the (domestic policy planning) problem is the ideology of the Reagan administration that government should be cut and not expanded,'' says Wayne. ''So it is difficult to generate new programs.''
To this Frankum replies, ''It takes extraordinary innovation to maintain services with fewer resources,'' and cites proposals for enterprise zones as an example of Reagan's ''reexamining the role of national government in a federal system.''
As to Washington's badmouthing of the Meese-Anderson-Frankum domestic policy operation, Frankum cites Meese's early advice to ''take nothing personally.''