Edwin Meese III, a student of management technique who is fond of drawing organizational flow charts, designed the policy-making system for the Reagan White House and decided to break with tradition by having the national security adviser report to him instead of directly to the president.

Now, after four months in office, some officials in the Reagan White House and other national security agencies think Meese made a major mistake. They are concluding reluctantly that the presidential counselor is overextended and, as a result, the administration's ability to handle foreign policy questions suffers. ptIn the domestic arena, the trio of White House counselor Meese, chief of staff James A. Baker III and deputy chief of staff Michael K. Deaver communicates and coordinates smoothly. But the Reagan administration's start in foreign policy has been much rockier.

Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. and the senior White House staff have had their well-publicized clashes, which appear to have subsided, reportedly at the insistence of the president.

National security adviser Richard V. Allen, who runs the National Security Council staff, is criticized by some in the White House and at State for failing to win the confidence of those at the top in the White House, except perhaps Meese, and for not developing the reliable analytical information the president should have.

The criticism of Meese is voiced less often, because of Meese's influence and power and also because he is genuinely liked by most of those who deal with him. But many feel that Meese has stretched himself too thin, a weakness that shows up most clearly in complex foreign policy matters.

"What Meese needs is a Meese who can devote himself exclusively to foreign policy issues," said one high placed official not in the White House.

In this series of articles examining the decision making structure in the new administration the most troubling questions are raised about foreign policy, an area where the new president wanted to be strong and commanding.

President Reagan and Meese publicly proclaimed that this administration would reduce the stature of the White House national security adviser in order to avoid the conflicting signals that emanated from past administrations. oSome now worry that they succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.

"When the Reagan administration cut the NSC down to size it left a gap that has never been filled," said one administration insider.

The concern is that the Meese-Allen structure in the White House has failed to provide the president with the quality of information and analysis he needs. Compounding the problem, said three senior administration officials, is the NSC staff.

"It's a weak staff. We have to get more quality people in," said one. He added that Meese has heard this complaint from at least two White House colleagues.

Some White House officials complain that the combination of a thin NSC staff and Allen's lack of assertiveness has meant that the NSC has little input and thereby fails to serve the president well.

In an attempt to fill the gap in the White House decision-making system, some senior officials have turned to Vice President Bush. Bush has been encouraged by Reagan to play a prominent role. An ad hoc group, nameless so far, has formed around Bush and met in an effort to help coordinate foreign policy.

Critics of the foreign policy process say decisions careen from issue to issue without the central focus that has been imposed on economic policy.

"What we need to do is to pull priorities together. We have to start asking the hard questions," said a senior official. For example: Is El Salvador still an issue? What should be done about U.s.-China relations, an important policy that has been on the back burner since Jan. 21?

Soviet policy, despite assurances from White House policy makers that a clear message has been sent to Moscow, appears to be a series of zigs and zags like the often-denounced Carter administration policy.

The Reagan anti-Soviet rhetoric has been strong, but for domestic reasons the most dramatic anti-Soviet action by Carter, the grain embargo in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, was lifted by Reagan. In addition, the administration has moved toward talks on limiting nuclear weapons based in Europe, talks that Moscow wants, and the Soviets have been reinvolved in the Mideast diplomatic negotiations after their ally, Syria, moved antiaircraft missiles into Lebanon.

Other early foreign policy decisions appear to have been produced by differing processes.

This politically astute administration looks most politically inept on its decision to sell a package of Air Force equipment, including radar reconnaissance planes known as AWACS, to Saudi Arabia. Senior White House aides say they will win the required congressional approval of the sale, but it is shaping up as what one called "a classic political battle."

In the Senate, Republican after Republican has gone on record with serious reservations about the sale. The list includes Reagan supporters with no large Jewish constituencies in their states like Sens. Mark Andrews (R-N.D.), William L. Armstrong (R-Colo.), Slade Gorton (R-Wash.), Warren Rudman (R-N.H.) and Roger Jepsen (R-Iowa). In the House, Rep. Jack F. Kemp (R-N.Y.), a longtime Reagan supporter, organized a forum of opposition to the sale.

Another decision, the attempt to balance Reagan's longstanding commitment to free trade with his campaign promise to help the U.S. auto industry, resulted in a "voluntary" Japanese pledge to reduce exports of cars to the United States. The pledge came, however, only after the disagreements in the Reagan Cabinet were aired in a series of conflicting statements that led one senior White House adviser to say the handling of the auto imports question had been thoroughly fouled up.

Allen took himself out of the discussions over auto imports in order to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest. Before joining the Reagan administration Allen represented the Japanese auto firm Nissan, maker of Datsuns.

What does the White House need on foreign policy? A senior official answered the question:

"We need more analysis. We need more planning. We're operating from crisis to crisis and we haven't had a real crisis yet."

Meese rejects suggestions that the National Security Council staff has been throttled back too far or that he and Allen have not succeeded in creating the right framework. Meese is pleased with the organization and says there is no need to alter it.

In public, Reagan, Haig, Allen and the trio of Meese, Baker and Deaver make no complaints about the foreign policy process.

Reagan went out of his way to proclaim the recent NATO ministerial meeting in Rome a "triumph." The visit here of Japanese Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki was considered a success although it led to strains inside the Suzuki government that brought about the resignation of the foreign minister.

All members of the trio have proclaimed themselves happy with Haig. In a symbol of this new collegiality, Baker telephoned Haig and said, in the language of "The Godfather," that he was making the secretary of state an offer he couldn't refuse.

The offer was to team with Baker in a tennis match on the White House court against Deaver and Sen. Paul Laxalt (R-Nev.), a friend and political confidant of the president.Haig and Baker won this May 8 competition 6-0, 6-2, marking one of the few times they have been on the same side (and a winning side) in the Reagan administration.

The apparently improved relations between Haig and the White House senior staff have not done anything, however, about foreign policy problems.

"We do not have a coherent foreign policy," said one Reagan intimate who has studied the process. "We have some themes -- the Russians are bad, the Brits are good -- but there is not a foreign policy framework comparable to what Reagan has done on the economic program. We need a foreign policy [David A.] Stockman. Above all, we need a National Security Council. What we have is a disaster waiting for a place to happen."

Closely related to this view is the opinion of a non-White House senior official who complains that Allen, the NSC director, "just reads from the CIA material" at the daily briefings for Reagan and is "not the quiet low-key person who can distill information . . . to put into a useful perspective."

Allen and Haig dispute these assessments. Allen challenges the accusation that the administration's foreign policy is directionless.

"We do indeed know where we're going," Allen said in an interview. "But we don't have a Biblical scheme, a blueprint complete in every detail, telling us that we have to be at such a point by July 1 and at another point by Aug. 1."

Later, in an interview in the basement office which was once Henry A. Kissinger's, Allen said: "It's a very good process that is developing under President Reagan. He has settled into a pattern that is extremely conducive to giving him information and allowing him to assess it without regard to deadlines or trying to conduct foreign policy by oratory."

Some say that Allen, who was himself an ardent advocate of a scaled-down NSC is one of the chief problems in the new system. Because of an understanding that Haig will be the foreign policy spokesman, Allen rarely speaks on the record, although he has been giving more frequest unattributable briefings to reports and is a frequent guest on the Washington reception circuit. Some of those who deal with Allen find him disorganized and lacking in detailed professional information. Reporters criticize his briefings.

"He should burrow into his job, be like a monk," said one NSC source who believes Allen lacks the organization and work habits for the job.

On the Sunday of the French election, a small incident provided a glimpse of the problem. Allen, apparently believing that French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing would win, did not prepare a statement congratulating Socialist candidate Francois Mitterrand, the winner, until midafternoon.

By the time Reagan received the draft message and made some changes, it was late in Paris and the French Socialists were complaining that Reagan was alone among world leaders in failing to offer congratulations. tThen, the Reagan statement was not made public after being sent, triggering an incorrect wire service story that the president had not congratulated Mitterrand.

The incident was not earth-shaking, but illustrative. It did get the president off on the wrong foot with a new government that could provide a sophisticated test of the administration's evolving foreign policy.

Although Reagan has not yet delivered a speech outlining his foreign policy objectives, Haig cites a speech of his own to rebut the suggestion that such a blueprint is needed.

"I laid out the broad framework [of foreign policy] in a speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors," Haig said. "We talked about the four fundamental pillars upon which we build our foreign policy. [These] are strength and reciprocity with respect to the Soviet Union, rebuilding our military strength, rebuilding our alliances and our bilateral relationships and removing those irritants which had disrupted our relationships in the past."

By "irritants," Haig means what he considers "excess emphasis" on human rights, the ideological aspects of nonproliferation and Keynesian economics.

After his semi-public conflict with the White House senior staff over organization of foreign policy, Haig has become less inclined to confrontation. Haig's natural instincts are to fight for turf, and his basic early problem with the Reagan White House was that the president doesn't like turf fights, a longtime Reagan intimate said.

But new questions of territorial control are on the horizon. Haig and his top associates resent the Justice Department's seizure of the leading role on immigration and refugee policy. There will be jurisdictional problems on terrorism and narcotics control as well, insiders predict. The Reagan administration still is wrestling with the problem of what role to give the FBI in its effort to control narcotics.

Meese has what Haig lacks -- an intimate understanding of the Reagan approach and an easygoing disposition. But Meese also lacks what Haig has -- a foreign policy background and friendships with the leaders of many allied nations.

One aid to communication between the White House and State has been the presence of William P. Clark, the deputy secretary of state who was Reagan's first chief of staff during his years as governor of California. Clark is the only person who is both the president's man and Haig's, and he also is a close friend of Meese, Deaver and Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger.

Clark represents Haig at the Tuesday and Thursday national security briefings for the president and also substitutes for his boss whenever Haig is out of Washington. In addition, Clark is on the telephone ot members of the trio several times a day. Deaver described Clark's role as "indispensable."

But the question remains whether the administration can manage foreign policy in a real crisis with a jerry-built structure that some of its own leading players do not trust.