You may have noticed a poster that has adorned the insides and outsides of the citys trams and buses for the last few months. It features close-up photos of eight different mouths, each with the words Il difensore civico. La tua voce (The ombudsman. Your voice).

Romes first ever difensore civico was elected by the consiglio comunale (city council) in December 2003. In the flesh, he is a sprightly Sicilian lawyer called Ottavio Marotta who talks so fast it is hard to keep up with him. His role is to defend the rights and interests of Romes residents with regard to city council services or companies that are part-owned by the council. For example, ATAC, the public transport company, AMA, Romes rubbish collection services, ACEA, the largest municipal electrical and water utility in Italy and the Auditorium-Parco della Musica.

Once a Rome resident contacts him for help, the ombudsmans task is to verify that the complaint is legitimate, then contact the appropriate office and request either an acceptable justification or a solution.

The first elections for the post of difensore civico took place in 1992-93, but no one was ever able to reach an agreement about who should fill the post, explains Marotta. The possible candidates were either too political or not political enough. The problem, he says, is that although the role of difensore civico can support the city authorities, it can also become what he pithily terms the anti-mayor. The overwhelming reason why Marotta was eventually elected, he explains, was because he was over 70. At the end of my mandate I will be 77, what can you do at 77? His age also made it easier for the council to overlook what he calls his possible excessive political colouring as a result of being one of the founder members of the civic lists from which centre-left mayors Francesco Rutelli and then Walter Veltroni were elected. Since being in the job however, he says that his bipartisan approach and the way he has looked out exclusively for the interests of citizens have been much appreciated by the right-wing component of the council. And in return, he continues, no one has ever told him to mind his own business, at any level.

In 2004 the difensores office received 3,600 requests for assistance. After last autumns advertising campaign, the monthly average increased exponentially, and in January and February this year alone, Marottas office received over 1,800 letters, emails, visits and calls.

The most frequent requests the office receives concern fines, noise pollution, public transport, registry-related issues, services for disabled people and day nurseries. Other problems are connected to social and urban issues such as poverty, housing and welfare. One gripe Marotta has is with people who contact him for petty issues. People can be very irritating, I have to say, he smiles. They write to say things like: The bus stop below my house is too noisy. Then the next person will write and say: The bus stop is 150 m away from my house, can you move it closer? Some people write to me every single day. Another problem is that people tend to contact him first, instead of the services in question. People write to me saying that they know ATAC (for example) wont answer them. He admits, however, that the reality of the situation is that maybe ATAC really wont answer them, but it will answer me.

However, Marotta says that he has been pleasantly surprised to find that the council is less bureaucratic than he expected. The real problem is its chronic lack of funding and a 25 per cent shortage in staff. His own office is no stranger to these issues. Though the regulations state that there should be 36 staff including Marotta, there are only 20, two less than in 2004. He says that lack of staff and an increase in work means that it now takes them longer than 15 days to respond to all the requests they receive. And this is also the reason why his office finds it difficult to carry out independent checks into services and matters that affect citizens quality of life, such as pollution.

Scant funding aside, Marottas office has achieved some results. These include abolishing the advance sales charges on tickets for the Teatro dellOpera, the Auditorium and the Teatro Argentina, getting rid of the ticket charge for people who accompany a disabled person to the citys museums, reducing noise levels at various summer festivals in Testaccio and Ostiense and freezing the price of schoolbooks for three years. The office is also campaigning to bring other major Rome-related issues to the public eye, such as discrimination against legally-resident foreigners trying to get a taxi licence, the illegal pane e coperto (bread and cover) charge on the bill in almost a third of Romes restaurants and the oft-overlooked safety of the citys pedestrians. His latest campaign is to protest against the large number of exemptions that are given to drivers on what should be traffic-free Sundays in Rome.

On a wider level, the need for a national ombudsman is at the top of Marottas list of priorities. In his opinion this is a very serious omission since Italians currently have no one to turn to with questions concerning, for example, social security and income taxes.

The fact that all companies and offices respond to his questions and entreaties (some better than others of course) is testimony to his aptness for the role, considering that his powers are very limited. The difensore can make recommendations, but he has no power to stop or modify the city councils decisions. I can only resort to my powers of persuasion, the fact that I can and do make a nuisance of myself, that I have some charisma and that I can talk to the media.

Marottas mandate ends with that of the mayor in mid-2006. And although he is not sure if he will stand again, he does say that whoever fills the role will have an office and staff and an organised structure waiting for them, unlike Marotta himself, who for the first two months in the job worked from his car. The unspoken implication is that with the office in place there can be no turning back Romes much-needed and hard-earned post of difensore civico is here to stay.

Via Barberini 95 (5th floor), tel. 0667109723 or 0667109722.

www.difensorecivico.roma.it. Open to the public Mon-Fri 09.00-13.00

and 15.00-17.00.