Federal employment rules are an embarrassing anachronism. They were created for a time when the government was smaller, its duties much more limited, and the typical functions were routinized ones, such as typing and filing. One aspect of this is the incredibly long time it takes to hire anyone. A short summary of the issue can be found here.
President Obama is ordering the feds to step up hiring.
This is welcome news. The federal government needs to replace a lot of workers who are scheduled to retire soon. In 2008 the Partnership for Public Service projects over one-third of the Senior Executive Service (SES), which constitutes the core leadership of the civil service will retire. We need to keep a steady flow of quality candidates coming through the pipeline merely to maintain the government's capacity. Whether you're a fan of "big government" or not, a government with big responsibilities but without the resources to carry them out is a failed government, and something that would benefit no one. A long, complicated hiring process deters people from entering the pool, reducing the overall quality of the federal workforce.
Some of the changes include ditching government - only forms and requirements (a problem not only in hiring but many other aspects of government such as contracting) in lieu of more traditional applications and resumes and allowing agencies to hire someone who had applied for a position at another one in the same department (but not across departments, which would require an Act of Congress).
Now, let's talk about (a) making promotions and salary increases based more on merit and less on seniority and (b) getting rid of poor performers.