HE'S STILL trying to get a grip on his administration. For the moment, he is busy reacting to events -- and shoots from the hip far more than is wise. He is angry and frustrated that the city's vast middle-level bureaucracy has not been harnessed. And he feels embattled, from inside and out.

Yet when Marion Barry goes on television tonight to give his latest solution for the District's budget deficit -- the biggest crisis he's faced since he took office -- he has the cocky confidence that his government will be able to make life better for those of us who live here.

Every mayor has a way of operating, a concept of his job, a style of management. People used to say that Walter Washington let the bureaucracy run itself, while he conducted business on the cocktail-and-embassy-national-day circuit. Barry eschews that appraoch, and tries instead to stay in touch with his department heads. Yet, as an academic I know put it, "in his own bumblin way, we had a sense that Walter Washington was in charge of things. I don't quite have that sense yet with Mayor Barry."

Marion Barry still seems to be in search of his management style. He wants the government to be professional, he wants to provide services efficiently. He wants to prove that a black government can run a city well.

He came into power promising a partnership with people. But so far it seems he hasn't developed the antennae to anticipate the concerns of people -- or problems before they arise. Instead, he has been so busy reacting to crises -- the 23-day teachers' strike or the current financial mess, to name two -- that he doesn't seem even to be working well through his staff.

On top of that, Barry has become increasingly frustrated by his inability to direct the city's 44,000-employe bureaucracy. So he's starting to look toward purging the ranks.He quickly fired two roofing inspectors who were found by a newspaper reporter to be doing almost no work. And when department heads have complained of inept workers, he recounted, "I said fire 'em."

The significance of the people I brought into my administration is that they are in tune with my philosopy," said Barry. "It's there at the top. It's not there in the middle. How do you get the people in the middle to do a damn thing? ... I say fire 'em."

Barry believes his "strong desire to change things for the better ... " justifies the tough steps.

But the battle to conquer the bureaucracy -- the secretaries and mid-level clerks who outlive mayors and presidents -- has defeated men as mean as Richard Nixon. The District's bureaucracy has been intractrable, in part, because the mayor has been isolate. He has made employes more courteous, but he seems to have failed to fire up the people who work for him the way he was able to fire up the crowds when he was a militant street activist trying to change the system for the poor and forgotten. It's easy to use the "hostile middle bureaucracy" as an alibi for the failure of his department heads to transmit his philosophy to the people they supervise.

Barry says he is dedicated to solving the same problems he faced when he organized jobless young people as the head of Pride Inc., when he later headed the school board, when he sat on the City Council. But now it's a question of whether he can redirect the services to fit a future of limited resources. And it's a question of whether he can channel his frustration into problem-solving, to work out solutions with Congress, with the White House, with the unions, with community groups and all the institutions with which he has to deal.

If he's successful, he will be a good mayor.