Douglas Bielan is one of Washington's paper-eaters, a man with a mandate born in the era of civil rights activism, a turf encompassing almost all executive-branch agencies and a workload measured in reams.

The paper, or most of it, comes in the form of affirmative action plans that 115 agencies submit to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's Public Sector Office. These plans are the raw material Bielan needs to determine if the government is promoting affirmative action for its own work force, just as it requires federal contractors to do.

Most of the plans contain chapter and verse on numbers and classifications of minority and women employes. Most, but not all. The CIA, whose work force and budget are classified, sends Bielan a simple percentage breakdown--and by its own figures the CIA has one of the best records for hiring disabled workers.

Bielan, 40 and white, is hardly a picture-perfect symbol of affirmative action. He joined the Marine Corps, was wounded in Vietnam and, after his tour of service, went with the old Health, Education and Welfare Department in 1967.

But what he lacks in minority credentials he makes up in experience in the bureaucracy's byzantine power duels: while lackadaisical about his political affiliations, he knows how to fire a memo from 10 paces and have it hit its mark.

His mark, these days, is likely to be the Justice Department, which last month resubmitted its affirmative action plan--but refused as a matter of policy to include goals and timetables for the future hiring of minorities, women and individuals with "targeted" disabilities, such as blindness, deafness, spinal-cord injuries and cerebral palsy.

"The Department of Justice is totally committed to equality of employment opportunity," Attorney General William French Smith wrote Bielan's boss, EEOC Chairman Clarence Thomas. "Neither of our plans, however, includes numerical goals.

"In spite of the best intentions to the contrary, such goals often become, in fact, quotas, by operating to give preference in the hiring process to applicants because of race, sex, religion or handicap. That is discrimination and that is wrong."

Smith's letter noted that his department has a higher percentage of minorities than does the government overall or the civilian work force.

Justice stands seventh among 13 Cabinet agencies in the percentage of minorities and women in its work force. But, in the case of disabled workers, only State has a lower percentage.

Bielan rejected Justice's plans the first time they were submitted, for failure to include figures from previous years so that a comparison could be made with current employment figures and for failure to include information on recruiting, career development and barriers to employment, especially of the handicapped. He has made no decision yet on the resubmitted plans.

But in an interview this week, he said, "All of our society operates with some sort of objective and a timetable for reaching that objective. Reporters have to have stories in by a deadline, executives set objectives for a Detroit assembly line. Most aspects of society set objectives for themselves. We felt this concept would be good to use with affirmative action: agencies would establish flexible goals and a timetable to meet them."

"Flexible" goals?

"That means they try and reach the goal, and we can give them technical assistance if they're coming up short. The goal is not absolute."

"Technical assistance," in the form of staffers familiar with eliminating barriers to recruiting, hiring and promoting minorities, women and disabled people, is one of the few tools Bielan has to make the government do what it asks others to do.

If an agency falls short or fails to file a plan, Bielan has a limited number of options. He can't go to court (as Justice might against a private business.) He can't withhold funds (as a federal agency might from a contractor.) What he can do is write memos. And talk: to the agency, to Congress, to the press.

How do these bureaucratic battles compare with the combat he saw in Vietnam?

"Instead of running across the ground firing, everything's fought cerebrally," Bielan said. "Through paper work and the fine art of the memo, I've watched programs made and destroyed. A program doesn't mean much to the bureaucracy. It has thousands. But the ripple a program can spread can benefit people out there . . . . In my program, if we succeed, we have an impact on a lot of people."