Governance in Aboriginal settlements in desert Australia is changing at an unprecedented rate. Aboriginal leaders and community managers describe the change as bewildering, with ever-revolving agents and agencies and increasing quantities of administration. Governments are preoccupied with finding linear ‘solutions’ to new conceptualisations of the ‘problem’ and packaging these for top-down implementation. However, governance in practice involves multi-dimensional interactions of a complex system, which are difficult to predict, let alone to control for outcomes. Through the lens of complex adaptive systems (CAS) theory, this paper argues that there is potential to improve governance as an adaptive system through three principles that enhance local feedback: (1) application of the subsidiarity principle to different levels in the governance system would realise a better match between decentralised functions and local capacity; (2) connectivity would improve information flows and relationships between agents in the system, as a necessary precursor for informed decision-making; and (3) accountability, when taken beyond simplistic notions of financial reporting, would identify power relationships across the system and indicate where agents may exercise greater influence in the system. Consideration of these principles will help promote a shift from the perspective that assumes the system to be linear and manageable from the top-down to a perspective that embraces the notion of adaptive governance as a means of recognising the capacity of agents to influence the system that they inhabit.