After three months in office, Virginia Gov. John N. Dalton has demonstrated a capacity for decisive action on major issues but no inclination at all to set out broad policy goals for his administration.

When required to make a decision - such as the federal government's deadline in the nine-year-old college desegregation controversy - Dalton has taken strong and decisive action. But on the lingering problems of taxes, annexation, transit deficits, and aid to the handicapped, Dalton has abandoned the field to a long list of uncoordinated legislative studies groping for solutions.

For Virginians used to a steady flow of news from Washington depicting a federal system in which the executive proposes and the Congress disposes of major policy questions, the state under the new governor creates a puzzling contrast.

To be sure, there was nothing in Dalton's campaign last year to suggest that he would be an activist chief executive, and the voters showed an overwhelming preference for him over a man who had built a reputation as an activist. Therefore, it is the decisive actions that Dalton has taken rather than his reluctance to address protracted problems that have attracted the most attention during his first three months in office.

Interviews with a half dozen top Dalton advisers and legislative leaders about the first months of the new Republican administration inevitably focused on the governor's quick resolution of the nine-year-old controversy over college desegregation.

His decision to accept the demands of the federal Department of Health, Education and Welfare for a desegregation plan that includes specific minority enrollment goals surprised many state officials. It also disappointed some of his strongest supporters who view the goals as racial quotas.

On balance, the HEW settlement has earned Dalton praise for dispelling the prospect of protracted desegregation litigation in a state burdened by a history of racial injustice.

"I regard his handling of the HEW case as a major act of leadership," State Senate Majority Leader Adelard L. Brault of Fairfax County said in an interview. The fact that Brault has been one of the assembly Democrats to label Republican Dalton as "inordinately partisan" has made his praise of the governor's decision in the college case all the more significant.

The desegregation decision has been the most controversial of several decisive actions Dalton has taken in his first months in office.

The first of these occurred shortly after his inauguration on Jan. 14, when he ordered an end to state funding of elective abortions in keeping with a campaign position. The State Senate narrowly defeated a House-passed bill that would have reversed his action.

Later during long coal strike, Dalton exercised his broad emergency powers to order the state police to protect operations of nonunion coal mines in Virginia and put the national guard on alert for prevention of strike violence. It was the strongest action taken by any coal-field governor to insure production of nonunion coal and, according to aides, brought calls of congratulations from business executives, even those in other states.

Whatever their feelings about these actions, the expectations that Brault and other senior legislators hold for Dalton's term range from low to uncertain. "I think he will do a reasonably good job," Brault said, "but he's not going to go down as one of the great governors of the 20th century."

Many of the reservations about Dalton's performance so far and doubts about his intentions seem to result from his reluctance to talk about what he intends to do about major problems.

The General Assembly has for two years been immersed in a debate over city annexation of counties, a debate that actually turns on the larger issue of how state-local tax revenues will be allocated among urban, suburban and jurisdictions.

Dalton, like Godwin before him, expressed disappointment that the legislators did not pass an annexation-revenue allocation package, but has not proposed a solution of his own.

"Certainly the governor will closely follow the between-session studies of the annexation package," administration policy analyst Joy Manson said in an interview, but she said it is not certain how actively he will intervene. "There is the question of how heavy a role the localities want the governor to play. Do they really want the state to say, 'Do it this way,' or would they rather work it out themselves?"

The legislation that was proposed to end the annexation controversy came unglued in the last assembly session because of dissatisfaction among rural legislators over revenue allocation formulas and uncertainty that the $250 million promised localities in new state aid under the plan could be found.

While some legislative leaders are prediction that a major tax increase will be required by 1980 to meet local government revenue needs, Dalton has remained silent on this issue. (The most likely increase is to add another penny to the statewide 4-cent sales tax.

Legislative committees and special commissions set up by the assembly are engaged in a dozen studies of income and property tax reform and proposals to increase state aid to cities and counties, but the administration is playing only a passive role.

Stuart Connock, the assistant secretary of administration and finance who is the administration's coordinator of fiscal po!icy, said in an interview that his office will monitor these studies and provide technical assistance but not necessarily make any tax proposals.

"We are not approaching this with a certainty that there is a need for major tax reforms," he said. "The governor asked for studies of local real estate taxes and of the impace on cities and counties of programs mandated by the state, but at this point we are interested in finding out whether there is a need for property tax reform or new local revenues. It may be that we will find that there are fewer inequities in the property tax than many people suppose."

Dalton himself says almost nothing about his plans. So far, he has been less communicative in public than any of his recent predecessors. Godwin was formal in his dealings with the press but held twice-a-month press conferences. Dalton has had only two general press conferences since he took office and ragularly turns aside questions about future actions he may take.

At a brief meeting with reporters last week, for instance, he was asked to say what major issues he will be concentrating on now that his first assembly session is behind him. He answered by saying that he will attend a Southern Regional Education Board meeting in Florida in June and proceeded to list the legislators and other state officials who will accompany him.

Not only does Dalton himself say little to the press, he discourages candor on the part of others in the administration. When the first newspaper reports appeared saying that the Dalton administration was considering a reversal of Godwin's opposition to HEW's desegregation stand, Dalton put a stop to further discussion of the issue by his advisers.

Press secretary William A. Royall, who spoke with authority when he was Dalton's campaign manager, is guarded in his conversations with reporters and often professes little knowledge of the reasons for some of the governor's actions, such as vetoes of legislation.

Manson has a thorough knowledge of issues being considered by Dalton, but stresses in interviews that she is a "conduit of information" between the governor and his cabinet and not a policy maker.

Republican Attorney General J. Marshall Coleman played a major role in the negotiations that led to the HEW settlement and this episode appears to have cemented the relationship between Coleman and Dalton in the administration. Most recent governors have had a personal counsel to supplement the legal advice available from the independently elected attorney general, but Dalton has decided not to fill that slot in his office at least temporarily.

Like all new governors, Dalton has been largely occupied since the assembly adjourned in March with appointments to boards and commissions that have varying degrees of policy control over state agencies. About two-thirds of the 2,500 appointments a governor of Virginia makes must be decided by June 30.

However, Dalton said at his last press conference that he is reappointing "almost all" officials who are eligible for additional terms and is not attempting to redirect the policy of any state agency through his appointment powers.

Redirecting the state government, actually, was never perceived to be the Dalton intention. He ran a campaign promising to continue the conservative traditions of his predecesor, Godwin, and defeated a Democratic opponent, former Lt. Gov. Henry E. Howell, who was identified in the public mind as the antithesis of the Godwin style of government.