Democratic institutions and state-society relations shape governance arrangements and expectations between public and private stakeholders about public health impact. We illustrate this with a comparison between the English Public Health Responsibility Deal (RD) and the Dutch ‘All About Health…’ (AaH) programme. As manifestations of a Whole-of-Society approach, in which governments, civil society and business take responsibility for the co-production of economic utility and good health, these programmes are two recent collaborative platforms based on voluntary agreements to improve public health. Using a ‘most similar cases’ design, we conducted a comparative secondary analysis of data from the evaluations of the two programmes. The underlying rationale of both programmes was that voluntary agreements would be better suited than regulation to encourage business and civil society to take more responsibility for improving health. Differences between the two included: expectations of an enforcing versus facilitative role for government; hierarchical versus horizontal coordination; big business versus civil society participants; top-down versus bottom-up formulation of voluntary pledges and progress monitoring for accountability versus for learning and adaptation. Despite the attempt in both programmes to base voluntary commitments on trust, the English ‘shadow of hierarchy’ and adversarial state-society relationships conditioned non-governmental parties to see the pledges as controlling, quasi-contractual agreements that were only partially lived up to. The Dutch consensual political tradition enabled a civil society-based understanding and gradual acceptance of the pledges as the internalization by partner organizations of public health values within their operations. We conclude that there are institutional limitations to the implementation of generic trust-building and learning-based models of change ‘Whole-of-Society’ approaches.