When Jay Solomon took over as chief of the huge General Services Administration last year, one of his first acts was to order that all the glass entrance doors at the agency's Washington headquarters be unlocked as a symbolic gesture to the public.

Yet a year later, despite his repeated complaints to the appropriate GSA officials, here he was bumping into locked glass entrance doors as he hurried to keep a noon appointment with President Carter.

"Why don't they open the doors around here," wondered the administrator of the $5-billion-a-year agency. "I don't understand it."

As the former chairman of the shopping center subsidiary of Arlen Realty and Development Corp., Solomon, 56, was accustomed to having his orders followed. But at GSA, which provides government workers with office space and supplies, Solomon frequently has had the disconcerting experience of pulling the levers of power only to find they were attached to nothing.

The need for change at GSA is clear. Widening federal and internal investigations have documented that a number of GSA employes have received payoffs that total in the millions of dollars from contractors in return for certifying that GSA received goods or services that the contractors, in fact, never provided.

But, in trying to bring about change, Solomon, like the heads of other federal agencies, does not have the management tools or power available to most executives of private industry.

Civil Service regulations, in the opinion of many, make it virtually impossible to fire incompetent employes. And while promotions are supposed to be grounded on merit, many employes perceive them to be based on political pull.

The dynamics are further clouded by the mutual distrust of bureaucrats and their bosses, high level political appointees. Bureaucrats may be suspicious of the motives of high-ltvel political appointees, many of whom have abused their positions in the past. Their new bosses may believe bureaucrats are always wrong and unwilling to change.

"The top people come and go, and the bureaucracy has to change willy-nilly every 20 months or so," says a longtime GSA employe. "If there's good logic behind it, then fine. But if it's because there's a new, fair-haired boy in town, we resist."

"It's really difficult to get what you want done," says a Solomon appointee. "You can't stand looking over people's shoulders to see if they're doing what you want. You can't get anything done by issuing proclamations. You have to win the faith of the bureaucrats, and that could take years."

Resistance to change may take one of two forms, he said: claims that a new idea will not work or foot-dragging. Solomon loyalists say that Robert T. Griffin, Solomon's deposed deputy, was a case in point. A 35-year GSA veteran who bridled at change, Griffin never refused an order from Solomon; Solomon loyalists say, but simply stalled - though Griffin denies he did so - effectively stopping or slowing new programs.

"When Solomon meets with GSA officials," says another source, "everyone looks at each other and says, We tried this 37 years ago, and it didn't work."

One of Solomon's pet projects, although ordered more than a year ago, has yet to be fully put into practice.

Solomon wanted GSA to hire consultants who would inspect and test new roofs being erected on federal buildings.

"I know from private industry," he said, "that the most common problem in construction is leaking roofs, which cost you millions of dollars to repair after the contractor has left."

Solomon said three of the 10 GSA regions have yet to hire the consultants.

"The problem is that nobody sees that anything is done," Solomon said. "The regional commissioners send out the order. But they've had the habit of sending out pieces of paper and assuming people were following orders. They often don't even get a receipt for the memo."

"The flip side is you may have an insane embrace of change as a form of resistance," says Walter V. Kallaur, who was recently appointed by Solomon to run GSA's Washington regional office.

"A directive went out that federal buildings should be located in downtown areas as part of the administration's urban policy," Kallaur said. "We actually had to stop a plan to move a boat repair shop from the waterfront to the downtown area and have the boats carted to the new location."

Shortly after he came to GSA, Solomon wanted to simplify the method for responding to inquiries from members of Congress.

"Fourteen or 15 people would have to concur before a letter went out to a congressman, and then they would come up for signature with misspelled words," says a Solomon appointee.

"Solomon wanted to simplify the procedure and cut out most of the approvals, the official said, adding that "Griffin would say it's worked well as long as he's been at GSA, and he would say he'll look into it."

Griffin said recently, "From the day he came in, Jay (Solomon) made the policy and determined the appointments. What this rivalry is, I don't know."

Griffin, who was given a White House job at his $50,000-a-year GSA salary after Griffin's friend and backer, House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill complained Griffin had been treated "shabbily," added, "I think it's kind of a stain on civil servants for a report to come out that they were loyal to anyone but the boss."

In recent months, Solomon has learned a lot about controlling the bureaucracy.

At a meeting of GSA regional commissioners in Washington, Solomon asked John F. Galuardi, the former regional commissioner in charge of the Washington area, what he had done about recent audit reports showing GSA is still paying for maintenance work never supplied.

Galuardi said he had disciplined 15 employees. Solomon asked the salary level of the employes. When Galuardi hedged, Solomon suggested that they were probably low-level employes.

Galuardi conceded that they were no higher than building managers.

"That's just not good enough," commissioners shifted uncomfortably in their chairs. "I want to know who the higher-ups were who knew about this and did nothing, or let it go on. I want them disciplined, too. And if you can't do it, I'll find someone who will."

Subsequently, Solomon reassigned Galuaride and several other top-level officials in GSA's regional office to lesser positions within the agency.